If, like many people, you were unable to tear yourself away from the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings last week, you were probably mostly focused on the testimony of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and that of the woman who accused him of a sexual assault that took place back in 1982, Professor Christine Blasey Ford. I was too. It was only when our two Texas senators came on the scene that I was distracted in that weirdly regional way, like when you run into someone from your hometown in a distant city. I wish I could say that I was happy to have seen Senator John Cornyn, the Senate majority whip, and Senator Ted Cruz sitting up so high on the dais. I wish I could say that I was delighted that they displayed, in equal measure, fairness and thoughtfulness when it came to the two people being torn limb from limb before them.
Of course, they didn’t do that, which probably surprised no one, and only served to remind me that cockeyed optimism is a Texas trait I have yet to outgrow. Of course the silver-haired Cornyn, who has been in the Senate since 2002, declined to interview Ford himself, like the other (white, male) Republicans on the committee. Of course he reserved his sympathy for Kavanaugh and declared, “I can’t think of a more embarrassing scandal for the United States Senate since the McCarthy hearings.” He went on to provide the circuit court judge and the rest of the country with a huffily delivered civics lesson. “You’re not guilty if someone makes an allegation against you in this country. We’re not a police state. We don’t give the government that kind of power.” If there was anything surprising in Cornyn’s performance—and that’s what it was, a performance—it was undetectable to the naked eye. Nor was there any new melody to his consistently partisan song.
The same was true of the junior senator from Texas, who also railed against the injustice of the attacks on Kavanaugh, calling his treatment “one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the United States Senate.” Cruz insisted that the committee gave Ford a full and fair opportunity to tell her story but treated Kavanaugh disrespectfully, resulting in his name being “permanently soiled” by the accusations against him. (He gave no apparent consideration to Ford’s travails, back in 1982 or while testifying.)
Cruz, like Cornyn and the other senators on the committee, declined to question Ford directly about icky things like sexual assault. For those who have repressed the memory, the assumed motive for using a female prosecutor as a stand-in for the GOP senators was that she provided better optics than a bunch of white guys interrogating a terrified woman from on high. (Like the other senators, both Cornyn and Cruz seemed perfectly happy to dispense with the inquisitor once it became clear that her gentle, persistent manner was not playing well with their base and President Trump.) Both men were also heavily into shaming in a way that was reminiscent of strict, second grade Sunday School teachers—but instead of lecturing recalcitrant children, the pols targeted Democrats, the media, and any woman who had ever thought about reporting a sexual assault.
In fact, the only discernible difference between the two Texans serving on one of the Senate’s most powerful committees was that Cornyn delivered his message in a stentorian but folksy voice—think of an august Dallas minister—while Cruz spoke in his unique Gulf Coast twang, a limited range laced with condescension that has always prevented him from winning Man of the People status.
But a Texas woman hears all this with a different ear, especially a Texas woman who, even if never sexually assaulted, grew up in a world where the boys—the jocks and the conveniently sanctimonious—had all the power, and where anyone who dared to be the slightest bit different was effortlessly marginalized. By my guess, any woman who doesn’t remember being humiliated or worse for being a) not so pretty, b) too smart and too studious, or c) being no good at sports didn’t grow up in Texas. There was a promising respite between the time Ann Richards took office—despite Claytie Williams’s rape joke and his refusal to shake Richards’s hand—and the time George W. took over, but the condition of women in Texas today, especially poor women in need of medical care and family planning assistance, is, of course, one of the real shames of our time and place. The rest of us have slowly learned to fight back.
But so has the old opposition. While a host of state officials have managed to deprive Texas women of their rights—starting with the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general—Cruz and Cornyn have been expertly holding the line in Washington. Just a casual look at their voting records tells the story: It isn’t surprising that they despise the Affordable Care Act, even though Texas’s rate of those without health insurance is off the charts. (We are consistently at the bottom of any list of the fifty states.) Nor is it surprising that Cruz and Cornyn have been active in trying to close Texas’s remaining abortion clinics, put doctors who perform abortions out of business, and shutter Planned Parenthood, where 60 percent of Texas women get their health care. Both also voted against a rule that prohibited discrimination against health care providers who offered birth control and family planning assistance, which, of course, would reduce the need for abortions. Both voted to cut funding to the Violence Against Women Act. Both even voted against giving Zika response funds in 2016 to clinics that also offered family planning. Politics that Work, a data-driven website, notes that Cornyn voted for women’s rights 17 percent of the time, while Cruz did somewhat better at 35 percent.
But those votes are only the most obvious attempts to keep women in their place. When you look at quality-of-life issues that affect Texas families, especially the poorest ones, our senators fall into the Can’t Be Bothered category. It’s hard to imagine that Cornyn’s predecessor, Kay Bailey Hutchison, would have voted to confirm the now-former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, who cared more about flying first class than about the health of Americans. Ditto the now-former and semi-disgraced EPA head Scott Pruitt, and his replacement, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler. And though both Cruz and Cornyn made a considerable amount of noise about the wrongfulness of separating children from their parents on the border, both senators support punishment of U.S. cities that offer sanctuary to the undocumented, and both support the construction of President Trump’s border wall. And, naturally, the NRA adores them both.
And so on, in the time-honored Texas quién es más macho tradition of insisting that women must be respected and children must be protected while ignoring the welfare of both. Of course it wasn’t any wonder that our two senators couldn’t find it in their hearts or minds to consider Ford’s version of events. (Neither, by the way, could George W. Bush, who was so much more of a hard-partying Texas boy than his father or his brothers.) Both the history that shaped them and current politics played their part. But shaming people, it should be said, is just another way of attempting to control people. So, too, is the manufactured outrage Cruz and Cornyn routinely turn on those who oppose them.
Texas is changing, but we still don’t know which way it will go: the blue cities suggest tolerance and a commitment to help the less fortunate in order to build better communities for all. The red suburbs and the countryside suggest the past still has its hold, where it’s still every man for himself, the weak be damned. Cruz and Cornyn just gave a great display of the latter. Come November, we will begin to see whether the rest of us want to turn back with them, or move forward.