Remembering Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, 20 Years Later

Anita Hill, not Clarence Thomas, was the victim in the scandal.

By SHARE

Thunder, lightning, and rain came from Sens. Alan Simpson, Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter—and oh, what a specter it was 20 Octobers ago when Clarence Thomas was not facing the nation as the Judiciary Committee weighed his Supreme Court nomination. Instead, he was hiding, refusing to listen to Anita Hill, a lawyer who worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, give specific example after specific example of his sexual harassment and pornographic references on the job. If her allegations were true (and they rang true to us out on the West Coast) then supposedly he would be out of the plum treat of a court seat.

You could hear Washington's sound shake all the way to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, where I huddled with my soccer teammates by the sidelines, listening to the hearings on the radio every chance we had during a tournament. The three senators resembling the MacBeth witches tried so hard to shake Hill's composure and tear apart her stories. Didn't happen. Hill kept her dignity for hours, days of excruciating testimony. You must remember this: "sexual harassment" was new to the legal lexicon, but practically unheard of in everyday American usage. Essentially, the committee put Hill on a witch trial when the focus belonged on Thomas. The question they considered: was a well-spoken young law professor a troubled or "scorned woman?" It's all written on my heart's memory: every character, every line, the heroine, hero, and the villain of the set piece. All they were missing was a duck pond.

[See the month's best political cartoons.]

Meanwhile, the lead character in this chilling drama remained off-stage, acting above it all. He had snapped at one senator, Howard Metzenbaum, for presuming to "judge" him, as if that weren't the whole point of the proceeding. When Hill finished testifying, Thomas swept into the grand room in extraordinary high dudgeon, acting as if Thurgood Marshall's Supreme Court belonged to him by his birthright in Pin Point, Georgia. But he was a stranger, barely known to jurisprudence. At 40, he had only been a judge for a year or two, but somehow he was "the best man for the job," just because the feckless one-term president, George H.W. Bush, said so.

Yes, Thomas acted as if he owed the committee and the American people no explanation whatsoever for Hill's testimony. His costume had no scarlet letter of shame;rather, he wore a robe of injured innocence on the verge of fury.

Then and there Thomas played the biggest trick in modern political history: he turned on the panel and called the marathon hearing "a high-tech lynching." We could feel the air rush out of the room all the way to San Francisco. A moment most foul, an accusation so false, but it drew blood. The all-white committee didn't have the fight or nerve to stand up to that absurd but loaded statement. Sexism is one thing, but racism is another.

The chairman, one Sen. Joseph Biden, aided Thomas's ploy because he repeated over and over: "You have the benefit of the doubt, Judge. "No, that was the figment of Biden's imagination, not any legal doctrine. Biden was just making it up, that a Supreme Court Justice nominee deserved the common criminal standard of justice for the highest court in the land. In a committee completely made up of men—some aggressive, some bemused, one silenced by his past (Sen. Edward M. Kennedy)—the genial Biden failed to act the part of a stern Puritan judge. He also failed to admit other witnesses and evidence of Thomas's use of pornography and inappropriate workplace behavior toward women. Biden realizes he bungled his role in this tragic story, for what it's worth: in a twist, the nice guy turned out to be the villain of the piece.

[See a photo gallery of Ted Kennedy.]

There's one senator that deserves special mention for his partisan wrongdoing: the Rev. Jack Danforth, a Missouri Republican, championed his political protégé, Thomas, so blindly he admitted it didn't matter if Hill's story was true. For me, that's when the whole thing became a tale told by an idiot—signifying everything about our government and the ties that bind male loyalty. Time was coming for me to leave San Francisco.

There's another senator, no longer living, who championed Anita Hill and declared he believed she was telling the truth. Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, a Ku Klux Klan member once long ago, triumphed over his own past and became the only senator out of one hundred to take Hill's side wholeheartedly. We heard his resounding voice on the Senate floor all the way out in San Francisco. Four years later, while interviewing Byrd on his love for Roman history, the senator showed me the legal pad on which he wrote that speech in his flowing hand.

The vote's written in memory: 52 ayes, 48 nos, said the somber sea of 98 ties and 2 skirts. Now it's not the ghost of Clarence Thomas, but the man himself that haunts American jurisprudence every working day between October and June, and then some, with his weird wife Ginny making calls at midnight—one to Anita Hill, asking her to "apologize." That's enough to make you weep. The plum treat of a court seat was plainly not enough.

  • Read about Sen. Robert C. Byrd's legacy.
  • See 8 politicos who survived scandals.
  • Find out about the women of the Senate.