Joe Biden's Forgotten Disgrace

The vice president discounted Anita Hill's accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas.

University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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I know, I know, everyone loves Joe with the winning grin. Everyone but me with the long memory.

By Joe I mean Joseph R. Biden Jr., the affable vice president, who will be 74 if sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2017. It's a safe bet Clarence Thomas will still be kicking around this town then. They are forever locked in as the principal male characters in Washington's watershed drama on sexual harassment. The Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearing riveted the nation in the fall of 1991. (Thanks, George H.W. Bush.) Did Thomas intimidate Biden into cutting the hearing short without calling further witnesses?

It's hard to know, but the reason Thomas is sitting silently on the Supreme Court – for 22 years and counting – can be traced back to Biden. If you've seen the new documentary, "Anita," it jogs your memory clearly and cleanly regarding what went down. Of all the Senate Democrats, Biden failed most miserably. The close 52 to 48 vote might have broken differently if he had displayed grit under fire.

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Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, authors of "Strange Justice," note Biden was pleased with his "highly unusual exposure rate" after it was all over. Sorry, but Biden is a bit too easily flattered and fooled.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was a searing experience building to a crescendo over several days. As chairman, Biden virtually handed the gavel to Thomas at a critical point. He allowed three senators – Orrin Hatch, Alan Simpson and the late Arlen Spector – to viciously besmirch Anita Hill, a painstakingly proper law professor who came forward to testify that Thomas had sexually harassed her with lewd language and social invitations as her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In the documentary, Hill emerges content with a new lease of life, with no regrets about telling her truth. As the documentary points out, it became a question of her character on trial, when Thomas was the subject of the hearing and often out of the room. When he came back, he furiously declared the hearing a "high tech lynching," a statement that rocked the row of senators into silence. Of course, even if it was wrong, this hostility packed quite a punch.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The coup de grace was accompanied by Biden's nervous assurances: "You have the benefit of the doubt, Judge." There was no legal precedent for such a claim on truth or guilt in a Supreme Court hearing. But Biden kept saying that fateful phrase on national television. The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd challenged Biden publicly by saying the country should have the benefit of the doubt. Byrd was a lone voice in the wind, which was blowing Thomas's way.

For the record, not many who voted for Thomas remain in the Senate. But if just a few had had the courage to vote against their party, taking Hill at her word, we might not have to endure endless extremism from one of the justices on the highest court.

The group includes Republican Sens. Dan Coats, Thad Cochran, Charles Grassley, John McCain, Orrin Hatch, Mitch McConnell and Richard Shelby. If I see them in the halls, I'll be sure to tell them about "Anita." Maybe their minds have moved on Thomas over the years, but somehow I doubt it.