Instant History "Flashback" by Bryce Zabel
Just this month, the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather's Son, was published and set off a new round of "He Said, She Said" in the media. In the book, Thomas gives his side of the nomination hearings of 1991 which, of course, led to a rebuttal by Anita Hill in the Op-Ed page of the New York Times and on and on.
Discriminating readers and historians have ample evidence on both sides of the story to decide who they want to believe. In that respect, nothing at all has changed in the 16 years since October of 1991 when America had a normally not-so-compelling Supreme Court nomination hearing process hijacked into something that felt like it came out of the tabloids.
If you think the current nomination and confirmation process surrounding Supreme Court nominees was rough during the last few years, just remember that it's almost impossible for it to get as awful as the Clarence Thomas hearings. We will probably never see anything quite like this again.
Although it's more on the level of the O.J. Verdict and not JFK's murder or 9/11, for those who lived through it, the Thomas Hearings still have a "where were you?" quality to them. Where were you when Anita Hill went before the Senate Judiciary Committee and publicly claimed that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had compared the length of his penis to an actor in a pornographic film by the name of Long Dong Silver? I was in a hotel room in Hawaii -- there to research an NBC pilot I was writing -- and even though I was surrounded by paradise I spent two days glued to a TV set.
Time devoted a great deal of space to this controversy in its October 21, 1991 issue, starting with an opening essay titled, "An Ugly Circus" and moving into the main article, "She Said, He Said."
It was clear that the differences in the Hill and Thomas versions on what transpired a decade ago were not a simple matter of differing sensibilities -- oversqueamishness on her part vs. bad taste on his. If Hill's description of Thomas' words and actions was truthful, then the Supreme Court nominee was guilty of sexual harassment in the past and perjury in the present. If Hill's account was a flight of fantasy, then she was delusional and a candidate for medical attention.
Notice on the cover that Time sub-titled the issue: "America's watershed debate on sexual harassment." That's my main nitpick on this issue. If both parties had agreed on what was said and done but disagreed on whether or not it was sexual harassment, well, then we could have had a watershed debate. This wasn't a debate on the issue of sexual harassment. It was a public spectacle where two incredibly bright, articulate and seemingly honest people told starkly different stories. One of them was a complete liar of epic proportion and the other wasn't. Today, 14 years later, we still do not definitively know the answer.
Cool and unflappable, Hill looked the Senators in the eye and handled every question without hesitation...No less poignant, searing or believable, however, were Thomas' anguished statements and adamant denials.
The hearings gave up lots of memorable moments. One of the "oddest episodes", according to Hill, involved an exchange in Thomas' office when he reached for a can of Coke and asked, "Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?" After Hill's testimony about this and numerous other incidents which included descriptions of Thomas discussing porno with women with large breasts engaged in a variety of sex acts with animals, Thomas came out swinging, calling the hearing "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks." The article concluded:
...everyone who had witnessed Hill's and Thomas' dramatic testimony knew for certain only what they had known at the start: one was telling the truth, and the other was lying. There was no way to imagine a happy ending to this very sad confrontation. For both Hill and Thomas, it was the hardest ordeal of their lives. But one of them was shouldering the burden unfairly -- and it may never be known which one. While both had been sullied and injured by the proceedings, only one had been dragged through the mud on the strength of a very convincing lie.
So, who was telling the truth? Thomas had more to gain by lying -- a Supreme Court seat. But he also had excellent witnesses from his previous staffs who had worked with both of them saying that such behavior was never seen by them and would have been totally out of character. And it did appear that Hill initially thought her testimony to the FBI would be sufficient to derail his nomination without her having to speak to the committee. No one has definitively answered this question.
What do I think? First and foremost, I think that if Thomas did those things to Anita Hill then he's an asshole of extreme proportions (and I'm not talking about his Long Dong Silver either). And I also think that if it could be proved, even today, then he should be impeached and thrown off the court. But as I've pointed out earlier, this case isn't about sexual harassment, at least not until you can tell who's telling the truth.
I watched all the testimony on TV and whenever either Hill or Thomas was speaking, I believed them and knew the other was lying. It was maddening then, and it's maddening now. They were both brilliant witnesses. If I absolutely had to choose, I would take Thomas' denial to be the truth, but only by a very, very slim margin. Here's why. A tiny voice tells me that -- knowing know how high the stakes are over these nominations and how Democratic activists believe now (and believed then) that a woman's right to choose is literally at stake -- well, that voice tells me that it's possible Anita Hill was recruited to derail Clarence Thomas, things got out of hand, and she was basically told by a lawyer that she could either stick by her story or go to jail for perjury. But I wish I knew with more certainty...
State your own opinion in the comments. Who's the scummy liar and who's the victim? Tell it the way you feel it.