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Thomas v. Hill: Days of Our Lives

TV and the Thomas Hearings

The first, unparalleled TV event of 1991 — the gulf war — was distinguished by the ab­sence of what Orrin Hatch, during the sec­ond unparalleled TV event of 1991 — the Thomas confirmation hearings — kept refer­ring to as “raw data.” As spectacle, the gulf war was completely controlled. Mediated by the administration, information was de­livered by newspeople who abdicated their autonomy to become flacks and floor man­agers. The narrative was as simplistic as Top Gun, the images as diagrammatic as a corporate stockholders’ report. Among the reasons that the Hill/Thomas confrontation “played” so well is that it provided a chaot­ic, violent immediacy absent from the war coverage. Caught off guard, the TV people could do little more than set up their cam­eras and roll tape, while the White House was forced to improvise damage-control tactics that shifted daily.

It might be overkill to claim that the Hill/Thomas confrontation is the return of the repressed, but it certainly provided some libidinal compensation. Put it this way: How many of you would have watched another four-day TV marathon if you felt that once again it was being spoon­fed from the top?

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Different as the two debacles were, they had one striking element in common. Like game shows, talk shows, and sitcoms, they involved a dynamic even more basic to TV than the exploitation of violence and sex — ­that of humiliation. For Saddam Hussein, the price of remaining in power was to be publicly thrashed by George Bush and com­pany. For Clarence Thomas, the price for his ascension to the Supreme Court was not a “high-tech lynching,” but something more like a symbolic castration.

To listen, as a friend remarked, to Hatch leading Thomas through a point-by-point denial of Anita Hill’s testimony — “No sen­ator, I never …” talked dirty, read pornog­raphy, mentioned pubic hairs in Coke — ­was to hear the echo of “Yes, Massa, I’m a good boy. I keep my dick in my pocket.” It was the excruciating sound of a black man forced to deny his sexual identity in front of millions.

Indeed, the image of Thomas facing his 14 white male judges, rocking in his chair as if he were going to run amok any minute, suggests an answer to the oft-repeated ques­tion of why Hill — who remained to the last a reluctant witness — had not come forward sooner. As a black woman she would not have wanted to call that image into being, regardless of his aggression against her. An­other explanation is that she suspected she’d be treated as abusively as we saw her­being treated on the TV screen.

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As a spectacle, the hearings were as hallu­cinatory as Alice’s Adventures in Wonder­land. The psychological terrors of sex and race were compounded by the fact that three kinds of events — a fact-finding hear­ing, a sexual harassment trial, and a TV show — were superimposed. The rules were up for grabs: Specter could decide to play the Queen of Hearts, shouting perjury, per­jury, rather than “off with her head,” and no one knew how to stop it. That the Re­publicans prevailed amidst this craziness was the result of two principle factors. First, Hill had both institutionalized misog­yny and institutionalized racism operating against her while Thomas suffered from only the latter. Second, in his dramatic closing speech, Chair Joe Biden ironically awarded Thomas the “benefit of the doubt” slogan that eventually got him over. Then again, Hatch, Simpson, and the behind-the­-scenes White House knew a few things about TV that the Democrats didn’t: turn everything into a story, and tell it between 8 and 11 p.m.

It’s more than luck that Thomas had the advantage of appearing in prime time. And when his Friday evening grandstanding­ — claiming he hadn’t bothered to watch Hill’s testimony, exploiting race to divert atten­tion from sexual harassment — got the equivalent of a “gee-whiz” from the Dems, the Repubs knew their script had been, as they say in L.A., green-lighted. (It was Sen­ator Byrd in the prevote Senate debates, rather than anyone on the committee, who finally argued that Thomas’s refusal to watch Hill’s testimony betrayed a certain lack of ”judicial temperament.” Not to mention megalomania, considering Thom­as also moaned that he had been “wracking his brains” to think of what he could have said to her. I guess if it wasn’t in his head, it didn’t count.)

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Understanding that TV is nothing if not narrative, the Republicans got to work like hack writers from Troma Films, tossing out one high concept after another. Friday’s script — with Hill the dupe of a satanic, left-­wing conspiracy — developed second-act problems when they couldn’t work her sup­port for Bork into the story line. Saturday was the spurned woman scenario; with the mention of Fatal Attraction, 11 courtesy calls became proof of erotomania. By Sunday, the scorned woman had developed delusions — possibly to cancel any weight that Hill’s successful polygraph test might carry.

“Character is plot.” Perhaps the Dems had never heard this fundamental rule of screen writing. If they had, they would have realized that their script had more potential than the Republicans’. Thomas had a clear-­cut motive for lying: He was an ambitious man who wanted to get on the Supreme Court. But no one on the committee had the guts to say that flat out.

The Republicans were also aware that, on TV, it matters not what you say but how many times you say it — the law of sound­bites and commercials. The mystery of why she followed him from the Department of Education to EEOC was solved by Hill sim­ply saying she thought the harassing behav­ior had stopped after the initial episode. No matter. “Why did she follow him?” was repeated again and again. (I gave up count­ing after 47.) Hatch did his Is-it-believable-­that-anyone-asking-a-woman-for-a-date­-would-talk-to-her-about-Long-Dong-Silver? routine almost as often. No one challenged it as a misleading question. He wouldn’t have talked dirty to her in order to get a date. He would have talked dirty to her after she refused him, as a way of proving that, even if she wouldn’t go to bed with him, he still had the power to fuck her over.

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Despite the adept use of TV by the Re­pubs, there was something they didn’t an­ticipate and couldn’t co-opt — a runaway script. The eruption of women’s anger that surprised the establishment, derailing gov­ernment “process” and network TV sched­uling, was fueled by what happened at the hearing and by the outcome of the vote. Hill, as the catalyst for that anger, deserves our gratitude and admiration.

Women — not all women, but significant numbers of them — are furious, not only at the way Hill was abused, but also at the failure of the men on the tribunal to grasp that the personal is political. Thomas’s al­leged invasion of Hill’s psyche — with words alone — is as political an action as the inva­sion of Iraq. The description of such an abuse of power isn’t dirt; it’s sexual politics. That’s what the men didn’t get.

The danger now is that the anger will be repressed, transformed once again into the kind of depression that’s characterized the women’s movement for over 10 years. Quicker than you can say “wham barn, thank you, ma’am,” the networks took up Thomas’s call for “healing.”

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The night following the Senate vote, Ted Koppel hosted an expanded Nightline, an open forum on “A Process Run Amok.” Among those speaking from the audience was Nina Totenberg, who broke Hill’s story on NPR. Senator Simpson, who like many committee members mixed up the identi­ties of Hill and Thomas, switching names and confusing titles with increasing fre­quency as the days wore on, here managed to call Nina, “Anita.” Thomas and Hill, by obstructing white male business as usual, had been fused into a single, irritating Oth­er. Now Anita and Nina were united in Simpson’s mind as the new “bluestock­ings” — women who use their education to destroy men.

After an hour of challenges by black women, white women, and black men to a process that excludes them, Koppel handed the mike to two Reaganauts who suggested that in the future all this trouble could be avoided if the White House consulted with a few senators before announcing his nomi­nations. Faced with such tunnel vision, women mustn’t lose sight of how much was accomplished in a short time. Not only was support for Thomas reduced but the Senate was forced to deal openly with something it never intended to get into.

The day of the vote, women crowded the steps of the Capitol chanting, “We’ll re­member in November,” a dispassionate statement of fact. For senators who voted for Thomas it probably sounded unnecessar­ily vengeful. I myself prefer something with more bite. Vagina dentata, gentlemen? ❖

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Thomas v. Hill: Of Human Bondage

Female Trouble

The Hill/Thomas hearings were a blast of clarity for the women’s movement — all those male Democrats cozying up to Clarence Thomas, seducing Anita Hill into testifying and then, repelled by any association with a women’s cause, abandoning her. Another sorry revelation: a major­ity of women told pollsters they doubted Hill. We need those women to elect feminists to public office, to storm Washington before Roe v. Wade is overturned. We’ve got to acknowledge what attracts them to the status quo.

Hill passed a lie detector test. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose by testifying. She spoke credibly, weaving a story about Thomas he then proceeded to act out. Hill described a man who was crude, inept, driven. He asked for a date but couldn’t take no for an answer. He hammered away, wanting to know why he was being turned down. He used his authority to feel big at the expense of making a woman feel small.

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Even during the first round of hearings, he was a bull, refusing to discuss his legal positions, guilt-tripping the white Senate with depictions of the racial discrimination he’d made a career of dismissing but then evoked as the cross he had to bear. After Hill’s claims were made public, Thomas breathed fire and charged. The righteousness, the self-pity, the insistence that he was the target of a conspira­cy! This man toughed his way through by crying foul, readily strong-arming. He raised himself at the expense of women, imagining a pack of feminists sicking him, lump­ing the women’s movement with establishment racism.

And the majority of women said he was telling the truth. 

The majority of women also want the right to choose abortion. Women believe they’re supposed to control what happens inside their bodies — this much the women’s movement has achieved. But women still aren’t sure they have a right to the world. Hill said that sexual harassment happens, that it hurt her, and that Thomas derived plea­sure from humiliating her. She described ordinary sexism, the way society operates. To believe Hill requires taking sexism seriously, and a lot of women don’t.

There are homophobic gays. There are blacks who under­mine black civil rights. Thomas and Hill did that at the EEOC, discrediting affirmative action, eroding protection from bias. Nonetheless, the vast majority of gays and blacks admit they’re dealt injustice, and they resent it. But many women — let’s say, conservatively, a third of them — ­deny the existence of sexism. A large number of women are organized against the interests of women. No other disad­vantaged group contains a sizable segment militating to limit its own freedom and opportunities.

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The women’s movement proffers dignity, selfhood, and independence. It encourages women to admit the truth of their experience. Not everyone, however, wants these op­portunities, and, even if they do, other longings may be more intense. Traditional roles offer women stability, safe­ty, a feeling of being needed and approved. The rub is the price: fewer rights than men and a willingness to be seen as less entitled to those advantages. But who has not at some time paid too much for a hunger?

If you have ever pleaded for love and acceptance — had to plead because you were being denied, overlooked — then you know what it feels like to trade off your dignity for a burning desire. You tell yourself a story: It’s really not so bad, this begging. It really doesn’t cost me that much, and anyway, who cares, I must have love and acceptance or I won’t be able to endure life. At the same time, a secret voice bleats: It’s no good, acceptance on terms that squeeze you into a shape that’s false. It’s better to do without acceptance, if that’s the only way you can get it. Then you tell that voice to shut up.

That’s what Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill have done throughout their careers. Thomas knew he could play cat and mouse with Hill, because her opportunism was so like his own. She would stick with him no matter what, just as he had cleaved to archconservatives, no matter how much he had to downplay the injuries of racism. When Hill was being harassed by Thomas, she told herself that sexism wasn’t all that hurtful. She was so used to making expedi­ent gestures that, only a few months before testifying against Thomas, she claimed she was pleased he’d been nominated to the Supreme Court. Unless Thomas and Hill soft-pedaled the seriousness of racism and sexism, they would have had to make war on the people they counted on to shelter and esteem them.

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It’s not for nothing that Hill and Thomas, two emotional conservatives, are also political conservatives. Political conservatism enforces the social systems that quiet anxi­eties about change. It’s impossible to know that indepen­dence is more appetizing than security until you’ve tasted independence. People who have made radical changes in their lives — left an abusive spouse, broken a drug depen­dency, committed themselves to AIDS activism — invari­ably say that they acted when their condition became intolerable. They discovered that passivity didn’t guarantee security and that the changes that had once seemed so risky were less dangerous than staying put.

But security isn’t the only factor attracting women to the status quo. Sexism is fueled by a deep dislike of women that both women and men feel. Mothers — mostly the pri­mary parent — are all-powerful to both sexes during early life; in reaction, retaliation, women are devalued in the culture. The dislike of women isn’t just intense but eroti­cized. Women as well as men enjoy the degradation of women — sexism gives women a chance not only to be victims, but also fellow tormentors of other women, stand­ing shoulder-to-shoulder with males. People’s feelings about the degradation of men are more confused, a greater sense of transgression infusing enjoyment. The degraded position is equated with being female, females being the ones who lack social power. Thus when a male is beaten, overpowered, he’s seen as losing his man­hood, called a pussy, a cunt.

Most people were embarrassed when they thought Thomas was be­ing humiliated, because he was per­ceived as a symbol of manhood. At the same time people liked seeing Hill described as a liar, a fantasist, a fanatic. Talk about pornography! To many, the hearings were yummy s&m, including the cat fight of four women defending the boss and lashing Hill for being ambitious and willful.

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Anyone who doubts that some women relish female pain need only recall the gloating of J. C. Alvarez as she evoked a lovelorn, jealous Hill. Part of the reason so few Dem­ocratic senators came to Hill’s de­fense was that they enjoyed watch­ing her get it. Hill was a perfect target because she wasn’t entirely powerless; people could victimize her without feeling guilty. She had tried to get up in the world and had succeeded, profiting from her rela­tionship to Thomas. She deserved to be smacked down for playing the game and then complaining — being a bad sport. More irritating to her detractors: she declared that hurting women was wrong.

Throughout the hearings, the divided nature of human response was simplified or denied. Lost were distinctions between sexual harassment and harmless flirting. Flirting disappeared from public discussion, as if all inviting lines might conceal nasty messages. But every woman knows the difference between sex play that’s welcome and being hit on while radiating don’t. That don’t is the crux of sexual harassment. Still, the workplace is undeniably erotic, an atmosphere charged by shared plans and projects, by daily contact. It’s not harassment if both people say yes.

The Bush gang kept insisting that Thomas was decent and therefore couldn’t like pornography or enjoy degrading women. But no one explained why indulging in a polymor­phous fantasy life would make someone indecent. No one mentioned that people can behave decently most of the time and still, on occasion, binge on aggression. That’s what much of the country did when watching senators and witnesses go after Hill.

In order for people to believe that Thomas abused Hill and that his actions were harmful, they have to admit that sexism is wrong and be willing to give it up. But people will be reluctant to do this as long as they think they have to forfeit some part of their erotic life. The idea runs deep that feminism is the end of sex. It’s one reason feminists are accused of hating sex. Another reason is that some feminists — Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin foremost among them — are puritanical, waging campaigns against pornography and eroticism. These people work against their own long-term interests, because the more sexual attitudes are openly exposed, the better chance there is to address them.

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Taking control and surrendering it, cross-dressing as a vacation from identity — all the kinky pursuits Thomas allegedly enjoyed — are basic in the human beast. We’re creatures of drives, appetites, aggressions, desires to escape into fantasy. Ending sexism in society doesn’t mean people can’t play roles in bed, in their heads. That’s where the role playing belongs. If people felt less shame about indulging these impulses in sex, maybe they wouldn’t be as pressured to act them out everywhere else. ❖

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Thomas v. Hill: After the Storm

Don’t Mourn, Organize

By now, the Clarence Thomas affair has taken on the quality of a cat scratching for a place to bury its turds. The purring noises from the White House hid a determination to keep such matters under wraps. “I was thinking of my little grandchildren hearing some of the graphic sex allegations,” George Bush burbled late last week. How much safer to deal with such “messy situa­tions” behind closed doors. “I think some­times when you get to subjects that are sensitive, it is well to delegate to your elect­ed officials” — those same honorable men who covered up Anita Hill’s charges until a timely leak and a phalanx of women from the “lower” house forced the Senate to act.

Kicking up the kitty litter, Bush confided that he’d been “glued” to the set, but also observed that what he saw “was deeply offensive to American families.” In one breath, he acknowledged “the legitimate problem of sexual harassment,”  and in the next, disparaged “women activist feminist groups … I don’t think they speak for all women in this country.”

Here was the backlash in full force, and the Republican strategy of attack-and-deny laid bare. Its aims go well beyond the im­mediate issue, and as Thomas was sworn in, Poppy’s claws came out. Sexual secrecy was only one of his demands. While the president squatted above the fray, his min­ions called for a purge — not just of liberals, described by Thomas as “the old order,” but of feminists, especially in media.

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Among the targets were Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio, who had helped break the sex-harassment story, and Mau­reen Dowd of The New York Times, whose commentary brought a feminist perspective to the world’s most powerful men’s club. That must have frightened Poppy and his peers even more than Anita Hill’s charges: Here was a network of women journalists speaking truth to entrenched male power. The right lost no time in demanding their heads.

“I perceive a total perceptual split be­tween the chattering classes … and normal humans,” wrote Peggy Noonan, former speech writer for Reagan and Bush. On the Times‘s op-ed page, Noonan raised the fa­miliar specter of Republican populism — in which hard-working, family-oriented Amer­icans are pitted against a perverse and de­tached liberal elite. Warming to the task, Noonan compared a “Maybellined” wit­ness for Judge Thomas with a friend of Hill’s “who spoke with a sincere, unma­keuped face,” Noonan was echoing a pow­erful — if subliminal — tactic in the assault on feminism: dyke-baiting.

During the hearing, Senator Alan Simp­son muttered darkly of Professor Hill’s “proclivities.” Now a rumor is circulating that the Democrats had agreed not to intro­duce evidence of Thomas’s pornomania if the Republicans would sit on evidence that Hill is a lesbian. (If such evidence actually existed, this would have been one of the few deals that worked to the Democrats’ favor, since most people — including some liberals — are prepared to believe that lesbians hate men, but not that men who love porn hate women.)

Inevitably, the Thomas hearings became fodder for the roiling p.c. debate. Anyone who doubts that this word has become a cudgel for feminist-bashers should examine the Wall Street Journal’s editorial of Octo­ber 17, attacking “the state of political cor­rectness in the nation’s newsrooms.” The Times stands indicted for “total capitula­tion” by turning “its front page over to editorials by Maureen Dowd.” Elsewhere on the same editorial page, the Journal‘s Washington bureau chief challenges Nina Totenberg’s claim that she left the now-­defunct National Observer because of sexu­al harassment. (The real reason was plagia­rism, her former editor opines.) Both the Observer and the Journal are owned by Dow Jones, which may be why the editorial railed against “the catechism … that no charge of sexual harassment can ever be overblown or even plain wrong.” But male bonding, even more than any corporate tie, underlay the editorial’s defense of Juan Williams, a Washington Post writer who had slammed Thomas’s accusers, though he stands accused of sexual harassment bv sev­eral female colleagues. Quoth the Journal: “Free Juan Williams.”

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The right is determined to drive a wedge between “normal” women and feminism, between liberals and liberation, between sexual politics and realpolitik. The issue of sexual harassment is tailor-made for this agenda, because it plays to profound anxi­ety about changing gender relations. This shift is by no means limited to erotic eti­quette, but reforming these rites of arousal fore es men and women to confront primal insecurity and rage. Thus the confusion in the eyes of Democratic senators as they faced Clarence Thomas, as if a hooded brow could hide their empathy and the double-bind it placed them in.

Though the Democrats were widely ac­cused of wimpiness, the more enraging pos­sibility is that they were actively ambiva­lent about Anita Hill’s charges, just as the Democratic party is patently wary of femi­nism. The Republicans are just as anxious but far less held back, and the image of Alan Simpson thrashing, Orrin Hatch glar­ing, and Arlen Specter threatening, were a frieze of male panic and its reaction-forma­tion, rage.

But if feminists regard the Thomas hear­ings as a failure, the right truly will have won. In reality, this was an annunciation of a new, gender-based politics, with the po­tential to challenge the traditional configu­ration of left and right, which is based on a much older model of class. Feminism doesn’t fit into American politics as cur­rently practiced: at its most fundamental, it transcends class, defies racial and regional interests, and enters into virtually every public institution, as well as the most inti­mate interactions. No one can escape sexu­al politics — yet no one knows precisely what they are.

This suggests why the old order — not Thomas’s version but male-dominated con­servativism — was able to strike back so ef­fectively. Anita Hill’s testimony threatened not just relations between dudes and babes; it shook the very basis of American politics, and demanded that the system incorporate issues of gender along with those of race and class. No wonder the European press saw the hearings as “a great American psy­chodrama” (Le Monde), “humiliating for a great democracy” (Il Giornale of Milan): no other Western society is as willing as the United States to alter the sexual order.

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A truly bi-gender system world bring American politics closer to human nature. And the Thomas hearings were a gauge of just how much feminism has changed the alignment-scheme, redefining words like progressive and conservative. It’s clear from the struggle for reproductive rights, the at­tack on political correctness, and the re­sponse to sexual harassment, that the time has come to affix a new label to anti-femi­nist liberals: call them social conservatives.

This evidence of a new politics is one reason I’m convinced the Thomas hearings are a watershed for the women’s movement. Another is the emergence of a genu­ine hero: Anita Hill. Her refusal to play the victim, and her ability to withstand trial­-by-fulmination, epitomizes the dissemina­tion of feminism. Women across the coun­try, in a variety of occupational settings, now share a common sensibility. Although that perspective is most evident in the pro­fessions (as the strong support for Thomas among working-class women suggests), if feminism is true to the experience of all women, it will eventually overcome the barriers of caste.

It remains to be seen whether social con­servatives will nip the concept of sexual harassment in the bud. Polls show that most people think erotic innuendo should not be regulated by law. But the same ma­jority agrees that there is such a thing as sexual harassment, and that it ought not to be tolerated. This contradiction has yet to be resolved in laws. Meanwhile, the Thomas hearings produced a flood of complaints from women, inaugurating a great debate on the subject and its relationship to power. All of which presents a profound opportu­nity for feminists to organize women around yet another dirty secret, and in the process foster social change.

To shift the status quo — especially when it is grounded in the libido — is a monu­mental struggle. And the secret appeal of right-wing reasoning, with its conflation of freedom and male power, decency and re­pression, “common sense” and sexual or­thodoxy, can never be underestimated. But there is solace to be found in the social struggles of the past. The labor movement is in no great shakes today, but there was a time when the very idea of organizing workers was regarded as a violation of “natural law.” The propaganda was fierce, the backlash was formidable, and there was significant resistance among workers them­selves. At the darkest moment, a labor lead­er was framed for murder and sentenced to execution. He, too, was named Hill, and his last words pass easily from Joe’s mouth to Anita’s: “Don’t mourn. Organize!” ❖

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Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas: When Conservatives Nipped the Concept of Sexual Harassment in the Bud

It was the most riveting daytime soap opera since the Watergate hearings — an all-male chorus line of U.S. senators attacking the morals and motives of Anita Hill, a conservative law professor who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas went on to be narrowly confirmed by the Senate, 52-48.

As Richard Goldstein reported in his postmortem in the October 29, 1991, issue of the Voice, “If feminists regard the Thomas hearings as a failure, the right truly will have won. In reality, this was an annunciation of a new, gender-based politics, with the potential to challenge the traditional configuration of left and right.” Well, as the current confirmation hearings on Brett Kavanaugh are revealing, perhaps the challenge was not strong enough. That said, Goldstein also pointed out how even back then conservatives were happy to demonize the press: “Here was a network of women journalists speaking truth to entrenched male power. The right lost no time in demanding their heads.”

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Amy Taubin zeroed in on the optics coming out of the hearing room: “Caught off guard, the TV people could do little more than set up their cameras and roll tape, while the White House was forced to improvise damage-control tactics that shifted daily.” The Voice film critic exposed the holes in the GOP’s script: “Understanding that TV is nothing if not narrative, the Republicans got to work like hack writers from Troma Films, tossing out one high concept after another. Friday’s script — with Hill the dupe of a satanic, left-wing conspiracy — developed second-act problems when they couldn’t work her support for [conservative judge Robert] Bork into the story line. Saturday was the spurned woman scenario; with the mention of Fatal Attraction, 11 courtesy calls became proof of erotomania. By Sunday, the scorned woman had developed delusions — possibly to cancel any weight that Hill’s successful polygraph test might carry.”

Laurie Stone asked why polls showed that a majority of women believed Thomas, even though “Hill passed a lie detector test. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose by testifying. She spoke credibly, weaving a story about Thomas he then proceeded to act out. Hill described a man who was crude, inept, driven. He asked for a date but couldn’t take no for an answer. He hammered away, wanting to know why he was being turned down. He used his authority to feel big at the expense of making a woman feel small.” Stone also discusses the social relations that got steamrolled by the male senators: “Throughout the hearings, the divided nature of human response was simplified or denied. Lost were distinctions between sexual harassment and harmless flirting. Flirting disappeared from public discussion, as if all inviting lines might conceal nasty messages. But every woman knows the difference between sex play that’s welcome and being hit on while radiating don’t. That don’t is the crux of sexual harassment.”

And finally, the absurdity of an all-male bevy of senators closing ranks around a big fan of the porn actor Long Dong Silver is captured in Lynda Barry’s “A Cock & Bull Story.”

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Déjà Vu All Over Again: Will We Discuss Pubic Hairs During the Kavanaugh Hearings?

With Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh under scrutiny for alleged sexual misconduct, we revisit the Voice’s coverage of an earlier confirmation hearing, when Anita Hill accused another SCOTUS contender, Clarence Thomas, of harassment. In October 1991, Voice reporters, like many other citizens in the nation, gathered ’round their TV sets, riveted by the she said/he said/senators said back-and-forth of the hearings. George H.W. Bush had nominated Thomas to fill the seat on the Supreme Court vacated when civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement. Below are nine pages from the Voice’s wide-ranging reportage and cartooning.

James Ridgeway got at the heart of why Thomas was such a divisive choice, pointing out that as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Reagan, Thomas’s mission was to “gut the guidelines on sexual and racial discrimination set in place by Eleanor Holmes Norton during the Carter years.” In a discussion of the history of employment rights, Ridgeway also reminds us that “remedies for sexual harassment are available to all members of the American workforce — save for those employed on Capitol Hill, since Congress exempts its own workers from laws it passes to protect other American workers from discrimination, health and safety risks, and unfair labor practices.” Only very recently, has Congress, shamed by an increasing number of female members, begun to address this absurdity.

In an article illustrated with a great Steve Brodner drawing, Alisa Solomon points out that Thomas, once accused of sexual harassment, converted to positions he had never supported before: “After weeks of refusing to answer questions on pressing constitutional issues, Thomas, astonishingly, was echoing arguments for affirmative action, due process, and reproductive freedom. The man who opposed ‘hiring quotas’ was incensed to think that ‘black stereotypes’ could impede his ascendancy; the man who declared that he had ‘no philosophical difficulty with the death penalty’ was railing against the irreversible damage of unprovable charges; the man who couldn’t remember if he’d ever discussed Roe v. Wade was claiming the right to privacy as his most fundamental protection.”

Mim Udovitch sarcastically notes a trend that would come to even greater fruition during the 2016 presidential election: “The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings were not about politics, but about allegations of sexual harassment; the fact that these allegations were believable to most Democrats and beyond the pale to most Republicans was purely a matter of coincidence.”

Film critic Amy Taubin observes that a Republican senator’s misquoting of Shakespeare “was the kind of typecasting that earns Hollywood agents their six-figure fees.”

Greg Tate gets at the take-no-prisoners rhetoric that was unleashed during the hearings: “Anita Hill is either the Rosa Parks of sexual discrimination or she’s a lyin’-ass bitch with the mind of a lunatic.” Those ludicrous extremes seemed shocking coming out of the boob tube three decades ago; now they have the flavor of a presidential tweet. Tate’s barn burner of a column runs to ground any number of the myths that had come “flying out of the belfry during the Hill v. Thomas bedlam.”

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Leslie Savan, who regularly covered the wild wild world of advertising, wonders what that infamous pubic hair will do to Coca-Cola sales. Will Pepsi benefit or suffer?

Michele Wallace points out that tales of abuse by black women had long been ignored by the dominant society — “The historical records go back to Harriet Jacobs and the early dismissal of her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” — while Mary Jo Neuberger extrapolates the viciousness of some of the senators’ questions to Hill.

Michael Tomasky delves into what happens when ideology is killed off: “While the liberals in the ’60s were for the most part busy toasting the consensus, the conservatives were still sending the ideological warriors on the road. So while Ed Muskie and Jimmy Carter were busy evolving into mushy moderate disasters, Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan, by God, were firing the cannons. They were, to say the least, effective. The political center moved to the right, at which point the conservatives stopped firing, quit calling their beliefs ‘ideology’ and started calling them ‘consensus,’ and that’s where we are today.”

And now, three decades on from when George H.W. Bush pushed a hypocritical ideologue onto the Supreme Court, it’s déjà vu all over again. So we’ll leave the last word to Mark Alan Stamaty, who fought absurdity with absurdity in his long-running Washingtoon.

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Anita: Speaking Truth to Power Doesn’t Bother Making a Case

Have you ever felt that you needed to see Anita Hill’s family doing the Electric Slide? It’s clear from the subtitle that Freida Mock’s documentary Anita: Speaking Truth to Power will be a rah-rah job, which is fine. What isn’t clear, and what isn’t fine at all, is why the final work needs to be so shapeless in its hagiography, so triumphal in its vagueness, so hapless in arguing its case.

Mock, like most reasonable people, is convinced that Hill told the truth when, in October 1991, she got hauled before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about her experience as the target of sexual harassment from then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Mock is convinced that anybody watching is convinced, too, and that what we they really need — rather than to have the case thoroughly settled — is to see is a slogging final half of Hill being applauded by audiences and speaking in generalities from lecterns.

In interview segments, the Hill of today proves fascinating and incisive, but the excerpts from her speeches and Q&As seem too diced up to communicate effectively. Mock cuts from footage of Hill to photos of Hill speaking at other times, presumably to cover the edits; several times in the film, the dramatic interest comes from trying to work out why we’re being shown whatever image she’s put on the screen. The sequences haphazardly covering Hill’s family life prove a relief, as they’re full of the moving specifics of extraordinary American lives, although it’s never clear what structural logic urges Mock from topic to topic. Hill goes through her days being impressive and a little majestic as the movie puds about in circles.

The first half is better, of course. It’s hard to hash the high drama and absurdity of the Thomas hearings, in which jowly, clueless senators grilled Hill for nine hours on the nastiest details of her story while entirely missing the point regarding her allegations of a pattern of repeated, power-abusing behavior. Her questioners look like blobs of pale and quivering cookie dough. In the extensive clips from that ridiculous session, Hill remains crisp and unflappable, no matter how many times she’s pressed to offer clarifications like, “He measured his penis in terms of length.”

Those senators look worse than ever, both the Republicans — who can’t comprehend why a black woman in the early ’80s would not have filed a formal sexual-harassment complaint against her powerful boss — and the Democrats, who bobble the hearing in ways almost identical to how Mock bobbles the evidence: Committee chairman Joe Biden neglected to call Angela Wright to testify, an oversight the movie justifiably presents as damning. But Mock doesn’t even bother to tell viewers who Wright was or that her testimony would have offered a fresh set of similar accusations — or that her appearance as a witness was scuttled in behind-the-scenes agreements between senators of both parties.

Fortunately, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker and Jill Abramson of the New York Times turn up to offer occasional context. Another reason the Democrats seemed declawed? Their vaunted lion had problems of his own: “Ted Kennedy’s life was so compromised, he couldn’t speak up,” Mayer observes. Other clarifying highlights include Wyoming senator Alan Simpson’s ignoble dismissal, during the hearing, of sexual harassment as “crap,” and the then-and-now remembrances of law school acquaintances of Hill’s, all of whom spoke to her about the harassment as it occurred. That’s the film’s strongest segment, one of the few times it rouses itself into anything like reporting. That’s not to discount the power of the vintage C-SPAN clips Mock has assembled: Revel in the outrage of Democratic reps Pat Schroeder and Barbara Mikulski when the initial Thomas hearings were closed before Hill’s allegations were even considered. Mikulski barks the message D.C. was sending to young women: “Nobody’s going to take you seriously, not even in the United States Senate.”

The doc’s second half sets out to prove that that isn’t true, no matter how the hearings turned out, but the film, so charged during the hearings, slumps into cheery scrapbook mode. Some of this is affecting, especially scenes of Hill discussing her hate and fan mail, still filed away in cabinets in her basement, or speaking tenderly about the strength of her mother.

The film’s thesis — that Hill’s bravery in speaking out has inspired awareness across America of the perniciousness of sexual harassment — is illustrated powerfully in a late sequence of teenage girls discussing what harassment they have faced as well as strategies for handling it. But too much of the movie feels like notes toward a portrait rather than the portrait itself, and Mock’s failure to nail down the Thomas case drains the power from the victory-lap scenes of Hill addressing adoring crowds: All these beaming people in those audiences have been convinced. Why wouldn’t Mock endeavor to convince her audience, too?

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You Be the Judge

It could have been worse for Clarence Thomas. In 1991, there were only water coolers for discussion sites. Today, there are:

  • Supreme Court Nomination Blog—A comprehensive roundup of high-minded analysis, handicapping, and outright rumor-mongering.

  • SCOTUSblog—Where so much of the blogging is about other blogging about the nomination, that, even for blogging, it is meta-blogging.

  • Underneath Their Robes—Wonkier than Wonkette, this is actually a well-regarded blog by an anonymous, self-described “federal judge starf***er,” who claims to have “graduated from an Ivy League college in the mid-1990s and a top five law school in the late-1990s, with nearly perfect transcripts at both institutions” and to have “clerked for a highly respected federal appeals court judge.”

  • How Appealing—A relatively readable legal news blog, with good links.

  • Legal Theory Blog—For anyone disgusted by the schoolyard whispering at the other legal sites, here is a somber dose of “comments and reports on recent scholarship in jurisprudence, law and philosophy, law and economic theory, and theoretical work in substantive areas, such as constitutional law, cyberlaw, procedure, criminal law, intellectual property, torts, contracts, etc.” As of this writing, the topic of Supreme Court nominations had not even made it into the “etc.”

    Of course, each of the above blogs links to jillions of others. The resulting universe of on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand chatter is either the wonderful opening up of an elite field, or the normal person’s nightmarish equivalent of being trapped in a roomful of lawyers. But it can’t be said that the information is not out there.

    Of course, the system keeps the public from directly doing anything with that information – i.e., picking the justices. Something about insulating the judiciary from the ugliness of politics. But here are some folks who will care very much what the people think, come Election Day:

    The Senate Judiciary Committee

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    Whose Constitution Wins?

    In pre-1937 America, workers were exploited, factories were free to pollute, and old people were generally poor when they retired. This is not an agenda the public would be likely to sign onto today if it were debated in an election.

    But conservatives, who like to complain about activist liberal judges, could achieve their anti-New Deal agenda through judicial activism on the right. Judges could use the so-called Constitution-in-Exile to declare laws on workplace safety, environmental protection and civil rights unconstitutional. Adam Cohen, New York Times legal affairs analyst, quoted by Jeffrey Jamison on the blog of the American Constitution Society, January 25


    Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has rushed to accuse Democrats of blocking federal appellate court nominees solely because they are religious. As Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says, “Playing the ‘religious’ card is as unacceptable as playing the race card.”

    Meanwhile, embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has convinced the House Judiciary Committee to begin to define the “good behavior” that enables federal judges to stay on the bench for life. So much for judicial independence as one of the bulwarks of the separation of powers. Whichever party is in power will grade “good behavior.”

    While assaults on the independence of the federal judiciary are becoming more fiery on both sides of the aisle in Congress, the media have ignored the most important article in many years on an ever graver danger to the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of “due process of law” and “the equal protection of the laws.”

    Also ignoring this siren-like warning issued in the cover story of the April 17 New York Times Magazine—(“The Unregulated Offensive,” by George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen)—is, as of this writing, the flailing Democratic leadership in Congress. If the leaders wake up, they can finally energize and focus the party.

    Focusing on a quite possible takeover, in the years ahead, of the federal courts by ardent and influentially interconnected supporters of the “Constitution in Exile,” Rosen’s long article, documented with a historical perspective, was preceded by this blazing text:

    “They [brandishing ‘the Constitution in Exile’] believe that an individual’s economic rights are inviolable [including corporations]. Which leads them not to believe in the constitutionality of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Social Security and the minimum wage.

    “They have built a network of scholars, public-interest lawyers and sympathetic judges. The next Supreme Court appointment could be one of theirs.”

    While this sounds like a variation on Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of an invasion of Earth by Martians, Jeffrey Rosen—hardly a radical legal historian—makes a case that should alarm anyone who recognizes what the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan told me in our last conversation: “Look, pal [he called a lot of people pal], we’ve always known—the framers knew—that liberty is a fragile thing.”

    The threat to our liberty from the warriors trying to bring back the Constitution in Exile is all about federalism—how power over us is shared between national and state governments. During the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, there were long and bitter arguments about how those powers were to be divided.

    As Linda Greenhouse, the New York Times‘ exceptional reporter on the Supreme Court, noted in 2003, the conservatives who yearn to return to the Constitution in Exile—which largely held sway until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s much more democratic New Deal—regard it as “a vision that includes [individual] state sovereignty, limited national power and strong protection for private property”—very strong protection for not only private property but other economic rights.

    By contrast, Linda Greenhouse added, liberals have faith in “the ‘Shadow Constitution,’ under which the government has affirmative obligations to alleviate inequality, protect people from harm . . . and surround criminal defendants and prisoners with a range of safeguards.”

    Next week: some of the dynamics in this crucial battle as to which of these two constitutions will prevail for years to come. A majority of the Rehnquist Court has been in consonance with the Constitution in Exile, and much depends on who will soon succeed Rehnquist as chief justice.

    Until reading Rosen’s article, I had thought that George W. Bush—banking on a less than compelling Democratic opposition that has yet to find its way—would nominate Antonin Scalia. But Rosen persuades me that Clarence Thomas is a more consistent and persistent champion of the sacredness of economic rights. Moreover, Bush would probably relish appointing the first black chief justice, following his father’s lead in bringing Thomas onto the Court.

    During Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing in 1991, Rosen notes in his article, Senator Joseph Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, confronted Thomas with the nominee’s admiration for the writings of University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein, a very influential champion of the supremacy of corporations’ and others’ “economic liberties.”

    Thomas said then that he was only interested in Epstein’s “theory.” But as Rosen adds, Thomas, as associate justice, has helped implement the majority of the Rehnquist Court’s rulings upholding the superiority of economic rights, over attempts by Congress to pass laws that would protect many Americans from a range of discriminatory laws by the individual states affecting health, employment, and civil rights. Those laws by Congress have been declared unconstitutional by the current Court.

    The lodestar Supreme Court case for champions of the Constitution in Exile is Lochner v. New York (1905). The Court ruled that the bosses of bakery employees had the economic right to insist that their employees work unlimited hours. Since these wage serfs couldn’t even take a day off when they were sick, the public’s health was endangered. This screwing of the workers eventually showed the way for a New Deal Court to authorize collective bargaining.

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    Thomas or Scalia? You choose.

    For conservatives, selecting the next chief justice of the United States comes down to one who’s blunt and pithy—Antonin Scalia—or one who pursues a more circular route to an opinion—Clarence Thomas.

    Here’s Scalia, arguing that the separation of church and state in Germany led to the Holocaust: “Did it turn out that, by reason of the separation of church and state, the Jews were safer in Europe than they were in the United States of America? I don’t think so.”

    And here’s Thomas, talking about how to succeed without the government really trying: “When you tell kids it’s not what they do that matters, but what someone else does, what I do, or what some governmental programs do, I think you’re taking away the responsibility they should have for themselves and, in fact, you’re disempowering them. On the other side, you’re doing something else. When they do achieve, you’re saying to them, ‘Well, you achieved, not because you did all the right things—you played fair, you worked hard, you studied hard, you put in the extra effort’; you’re saying to them, ‘You succeeded because I did something for you. The benefits of your success fell to me.'”


    Additional reporting: Nicole Duarte and David Botti.

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    Moderate Rock

    Alan Schroeder has a modest proposal for the Commission on Presidential Debates. “I think if Oprah moderated a presidential debate, the whole country would come to a standstill,” says Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High Risk TV. “But it’s always been Washington journalists. They’ve always gone with the safe candidate.” Choosing Oprah Winfrey wouldn’t be a complete shocker, he says. She has been mentioned informally before as a possible host, and in 2000 Al Gore and George Bush each appeared on her show.

    But when the nonpartisan commission selects a moderator, it usually goes for someone who is unlikely to embarrass either candidate. Call it the legacy of Bernard Shaw, the CNN anchor who bumrushed Michael Dukakis in 1988 at a debate by asking, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

    Friday’s debate between President Bush and Senator John Kerry was slightly less stilted than the first one of this campaign, because of its town-hall format. ABC anchor Charlie Gibson, who served as moderator, generally tried to do his job and stay out of the way—even though Bush challenged him on that front, at one point ignoring Gibson’s attempt to ask a follow-up question. With the president fairly blasting off his stool, Gibson declined to ratchet up the confrontation.

    To that end Gibson did a good job, the major part of which was to ensure that the attention stayed on the candidates. The need for balance and dispassion is the main reason so many moderators of late have come from PBS. “The commission makes pretty cautious choices,” says Schroeder. “Dan Rather would never get chosen for a presidential debate because he has too many enemies. Jim Lehrer did a good job in 2000 and there was no prejudice one way or the other. This year you had Gwen Ifill. There was some bitching about Bob Schieffer”—picked to handle the final debate, on October 13—”just because he came from CBS. So it’s always a bit of a hot potato.”


    Doubting Thomas

    Washington Post scribes Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher have a thing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Since 2002, the pair have authored several long-form articles for the paper and its weekly magazine. Their most recent is a series of articles trying to get at the core of the court’s most enigmatic judge.

    “Just him being the second black justice is interesting,” says Fletcher, a national staff writer for the paper. “Plus there’s his politics, his unique jurisprudence, and also how people react to him. People have a visceral reaction to Thomas, and it raises some questions that a lot of black people wrestle with.”

    Chief—and perhaps most stupid—among them: Can you be black and a conservative? Twelve years after Anita Hill, Fletcher and Merida’s series seeks to expose a seldom-seen side of Clarence Thomas. What the two uncovered was a record of Thomas using his influence to help several up-and-coming African American jurists, conservative and liberal.

    The discovery may be surprising, but not so much because Thomas is a conservative—Booker T. Washington was no slouch when it came to kingmaking. It’s more that so little is known about him, making any anecdote that drips out a prominent stroke in a relatively blank portrait. Thomas carries a serious grudge against the fourth estate, granting very few interviews. “He distrusts the media,” says Fletcher, “and particularly the part that he would consider the liberal media. He’s engaging when you talk to him informally, but he’s wary. He can recite his own coverage chapter and verse.”

    Fletcher and Merida are turning their Washington Post reporting on Thomas into a book, set to be released in 2005 or 2006. The justice is aware of the book, says Fletcher, but still isn’t taking on interviews.


    Dumb and dumber

    Readers of the October 3 edition of The New York Times Book Review were treated to a doozy of a shellacking, courtesy of humorist Joe Queenan. The former GQ writer’s subject was Esquire senior editor A.J. Jacobs’s new book, The Know It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. Jacobs’s tome traces his quest to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. The task earned him no love from Queenan. “At one point in the book, he says, ‘I hate Gustave Flaubert,’ ” says Queenan. “Them’s fighting words where I come from.”

    No doubt. In his review, Queenan dismissed Jacobs as a “pedigreed simpleton” whose book was “mesmerizingly uninformative.” Now, far be it from Press Clips to argue against a critical beatdown, as we’ve thrown some elbows in our time. But what made Queenan’s more notable was its secondary target—Entertainment Weekly.

    In his last four paragraphs, Queenan managed to slip in three shots at the magazine. He panned Jacobs for not knowing who Samuel Beckett is, calling the admission “criminally stupid, even for someone who has written for Entertainment Weekly.” He then went on to report that “people who read Marcel Proust and Bertrand Russell instead of Entertainment Weekly actually do learn stuff.” Queenan wrapped up by noting that after his self-assigned reading, Jacobs still “wouldn’t even be the smartest person at Entertainment Weekly.”

    “Perhaps he’s jealous that I got a very flattering review in Entertainment Weekly along with a handsome author photo,” says Jacobs. Hmm, could be. But we’re going to go with motive B—as in Big Payback. In 2001, Queenan himself took it on the chin when reviewer Margot Mifflin wrote of his Balsamic Dreams, “Baby boomers have been called smug, self-indulgent, prone to sarcasm, and clever but shallow—and Queenan is their unintentional mascot.” Mifflin was writing in Entertainment Weekly. The ultimate insult was that Mifflin graded Queenan’s book a C—grading books is bad enough, but a C is an F minus in EW-speak.

    So does Queenan really think the EW crowd rides the short bus? “Let’s just say I don’t think they’re as sharp as people who read The New Yorker,” he says. “It was just a running joke. If he wrote for Premiere, it could have been Premiere.”