The Mean Spirits From the Clarence Thomas Hearings Never Left

Mrs. Thomas, you awakened the fury of your husband's confirmation hearings with your weird ramblings.

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Virginia Lamp Thomas stirred the boiling cauldron of national memory from 19 Novembers ago, with on-cue Halloween timing. The wife of Clarence Thomas, a member of the Supreme Court, called up Anita Hill, unbidden, and demanded an apology for "what you did you my husband." That's a lot like the wife of a Salem witch trial judge asking an apology from a young woman drowned in the town duck pond.

Warning: This column is a very strong brew. For me, the issue is more what Clarence Thomas did and does to all of us and the nation's constitution. He gave new meaning to "one man, one vote" in the 2000 Bush vs. Gore case, which passed 5-4. Always sitting like a stone, silent and sullen, during oral arguments, he does not advance American jurisprudence on the job. Appointed by President George H.W. Bush, he took Thurgood Marshall's seat in 1991.

Let's not forget that recently ousted NPR commentator Juan Williams was Thomas's most vocal defender. It's strange how the hobgoblins of that public square nightmare are surfacing this season.

Mrs. Thomas, you awakened the sound and fury of your husband's 1991 confirmation hearings with your weird ramblings. Thanks for that, a flashback to the single most polarizing event for many a full moon. Listening to the proceedings from my San Francisco soccer team's game, we women were all agape, cast under a spell, by the haunting voices from Washington that autumn weekend. The clear voice of Hill, telling her truth under oath of her sexual harassment at the hands of Thomas, her former boss, rolled like thunder and lightning across the land. She gave specific examples that connected to the pornography of the day.

Responding to this ugly private portrait of a 41-year-old man, some senators on the Judiciary Committee rushed to judgment. The Republican trio of Arlen Specter, Orrin Hatch, and Alan Simpson were scarier than the three witches in Macbeth as they tried to break Hill with wild talk of pubic hairs on Coke cans. They suggested Hill was a "scorned woman." The Democrats lacked coordinated high dudgeon of their own. They decided Thomas was probably unfit for the highest court, but were tongue-tied and flat-footed in the face of their colleagues’ spooky tricks.

[See where Specter gets his campaign money.]

The American people were treated to political theatrics that revealed character in action. Sen. Joseph Biden, the chairman at center stage, lit up like a jack-o’-lantern when he wielded the gavel. He tended to talk too much (shocker) and repeated: "You have the benefit of the doubt, Judge." A criminal standard of guilt should not be applied to such a lofty realm of justice, but Biden brought an ordinary touch to the ornate setting. Thomas refused to listen to Hill's testimony at all and withdrew from the drama, not before denouncing it as a "high-tech lynching."

As soon as Thomas turned the airy room hurly-burly, it was effectively over. Thomas's wife Virginia was right there as living proof we were not in the Jim Crow South anymore. But no matter no mind. Race trumps gender every time. While investigative reporters were turning up evidence that Thomas was in fact a consumer of pornography, the vote and the oath of office were taken hurriedly. The stories never saw the light of day, according to Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson.

So Thomas got to the Supreme Court after all by a slim margin: 52-48. Yet one senator rose to declare that he believed Hill: the late Robert C. Byrd. Since most American women believed Hill and resented her reception, they let Congress know it with the "Year of the Woman" in the 1992 election. But things haven't been the same since. I've come to believe the truth didn't matter much in the hearing. Thomas's White House and Senate supporters wanted to win more than they cared a fig about sexual harassment. That was the first time the term ever entered the national conversation.

Nineteen Novembers ago, mean spirits afoot were meaner than anyone could remember. And they never left town.

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