The Clarence Thomas Campaign -- Anita Hill Finally Goes On The Record, Shocking Senators With Her Allegations
Fourth of five excerpts from "Capitol Games: Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, and the Story of a Supreme Court Nomination" (Hyperion).
As the first days of the hearings passed, Anita Hill was in Oklahoma agonizing. She had already talked to members of the staffs of Sens. Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum. She believed that the Judiciary Committee should investigate her charges, and speedily. But she couldn't force the committee and, in particular, its chairman, to do so; she had to wait and wonder. She was reluctant to step forward more boldly.
She had made it clear that she was not ready to have her name spread around in public. All her life she had been a private person, not one to broadcast the details of her private life to the world. If something was bothering her, her habit was to confide in a few close friends. Hill also knew that if what she had to say was not treated carefully and secretly, this episode from her past could blow up into an uncontrollable scandal. This at a time when she had finally found a comfortable professional home at the University of Oklahoma's law school at Norman.
Hill's allegations against the Supreme Court nominee were now going to be in the hands of Sen. Joseph Biden, who was not exactly eager to get involved. Biden's staff had told Metzenbaum's staff that they would not call Hill. She would have to initiate the conversation.
This was difficult for Hill to do. As she told Metzenbaum's staff and Kennedy's, she was reluctant to come forward. Her reluctance had also become clear to me, but I knew I was not in a good position to press the issue. Since I was working for a daily newspaper with a circulation of about 800,000, I was not the person Hill wanted to talk to just then about some of the most intimate and painful details of her life. She didn't want her name even mentioned in public as yet, and certainly not in connection with Clarence Thomas.
Hill was not the person who had started the controversy rolling; it had been initiated by telephone calls from Senate staffers in Washington, who had learned her story from the Alliance for Justice, which had come into the know by way of a woman classmate in whom Hill had confided. Hesitant, Hill had not spoken up until the first day of the hearings. But if Ricki Seidman of Sen. Kennedy's staff had not prompted Hill, the law professor would never have said a word.
"Absolutely not!" Hill answered later when asked a question about whether she would have come forward independently. "It was a troubling decision for me to make, even after they came forward to me. It's not something that I wanted to grandstand about. And I realized that it has been a long time since these incidents occurred. And therefore, weighing that factor I had made a personal choice, to not become involved. However, I'm not sure in retrospect that even that would have been the good choice, but having been approached by the Senate, I felt that I had an obligation to come forward." (Hill also said she had not come forward earlier, particularly in 1990 when Thomas had been nominated to the federal appeals court, simply because "they never approached me.")
By Sept. 12, the third day of the hearings, as Thomas continued to spar with the senators about the record of his political and judicial life, Hill had decided she couldn't continue to stand with one foot in the door, waiting to see if someone on Sen. Biden's staff would open it and invite her in to tell her story.
That morning she telephoned Harriet Grant, the committee's nominations counsel and the person with whom she would discuss the next step. Grant did things by the book, Joe Biden's book. Her job was to brief Sen. Biden on the information she had collected on judicial nominees - not just for the Supreme Court, but the whole federal judiciary.
Grant's reputation among the liberal groups opposing Thomas was that she was strait-laced - no doubt exactly what she wanted it to be. She did not seem eager to share information with them, or to look into potential problems that they might raise with her.
When Hill telephoned on Thursday, Sept. 12, Grant was willing to listen. Hill had to break off the conversation, though, because she had go to teach a law school class that morning. Grant called Hill back that evening. Over a long-distance line between the capital and Oklahoma, Hill once again told the story of what had happened to her when she worked for Thomas. As a lawyer who understood the need to corroborate any story like hers, Hill provided Grant with the means to do that. She gave Grant the name of a friend, Susan Hoerchner, a judge in California, in whom she had confided her troubles with Thomas at the time.
After her conversations with Grant, Hill understood that her name and her charges against Thomas would not be made public, but that the information would be given to the members of the committee.
That was exactly the way Hill wanted it - both ways. She wanted to avoid publicity, but she had decided that her story was too important to keep to herself. She felt that she was doing the right thing.
Sen. Biden wasn't eager to come to Hill's aid. As far as Biden was concerned, someone close to him said later, "It was political nitroglycerine. We didn't know at this stage what was going to happen. What if we passed this thing around and it leaked and she said, `I've been abused by the Judiciary Committee.' Or we could get killed the opposite way, by doing nothing. There is a perception that with the public you are putting a stick in the hornets' nest by digging up dirt, that that would also backfire. The public's feelings on this are very ambiguous. They want to see us thoroughly investigate nominees. But if we ask them should we dig up dirt on nominees they would say we should investigate them but not dig up dirt. That's the line that we have to walk all the time."
To this day, it remains unclear whether Biden even tried to understand Hill's position on the sensitive issue. Later, when Biden reconstructed the confusion of events that eventually dumped Hill in the eye of a public storm, the senator had a version of what happened that did not jibe with Hill's.
Sen. Biden said that Hill had been told that the committee members would not be informed about her charges unless a full investigation took place. In the interests of fairness, such an investigation would require that Thomas be given a chance to respond. According to Biden, Hill had not agreed that Thomas be told about her charges, thereby miring the Judiciary Committee in a state of inaction. Hill had told Grant, according to Biden's office, that at least "it was cathartic to tell someone about it."
Biden, according to his staff, felt strongly that he was not going to circulate "some anonymous charge." They said that Biden thought he had made sure that Hill understood this. Biden, who had spent much of the previous year drafting a law that would protect women who were victims of violence, also believed that women should not be coached or pushed into coming forward.
Days passed and the committee did nothing. Neither Grant nor anyone else on Biden's staff followed up on the allegations that the chairman of the EEOC had sexually harassed a member of his staff before being nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States. No one called Hill back to press her to come forward publicly. No one called other EEOC staffers to ask if they had experienced anything like what Hill said happened to her. No one even called Judge Hoerchner - who was willing to provide crucial corroboration. In the meantime, Thomas finished testifying, and the assortment of witnesses followed with their various opinions.
Finally, on Sept. 18, after six days had passed with no action on the part of the committee, Judge Hoerchner called Washington. Hoerchner made it clear to the committee that she could back up Hill's charges. She thought Hill's case should be heard, at least unofficially, by the Judiciary Committee. Even this didn't force the committee into action.
The next day as the hearings were nearing their close, Hill picked up her telephone again and dialed the committee staff. It was another Thursday, Sept. 19; a full week had gone by since Hill had spoken with Grant, the chief nominations counsel. Anita Hill wanted to know what had happened with her information. Nothing, she learned. Hill then asked what options she had to get the information before the senators on the committee, saying she did not want to abandon her concerns.
On Friday, Sept. 20, the last day intended for the hearings, the committee staff made a move. It was proposed to Hill that the FBI be brought in to investigate her charges specifically. Her name would have to be provided to the FBI. The federal investigators would then interview both Thomas and Hill, who would no longer be able to remain in the background. Hill, still unsure of herself, hesitated. She asked to be telephoned again the next day. Hill continued to equivocate, in the view of Sen. Biden and his staff, who had no real idea of the woman with whom they were dealing.
Most of the other senators on the committee had no idea about the drama that was going on behind the scenes with Hill. By the weekend, with the hearings seemingly over, the best guess was that the majority of senators would vote in favor of Thomas.
The weekend after the hearings was a long one for Hill. The committee's proposal for an FBI investigation meant that investigators whom she neither knew nor trusted would suddenly be asking questions about what she felt had been an extraordinarily difficult time in her life, so difficult that she had retreated from it, coming home from Washington to the friendlier land of Oklahoma. She could expect no tact. Worse, she would have to hand over the use of her name to investigators who would also be questioning Clarence Thomas. Although the FBI investigation was not supposed to be public, it meant taking a risk. She still wanted her name kept out of the public arena.
The only experienced advisers to whom Hill turned were staff aides on the Judiciary Committee. She kept getting the message that unless she submitted to FBI involvement in the case, the committee would not handle her charges.
Although Hill had worked in the capital, she did not have a clear concept of the power politics of a controversial Supreme Court nomination, according to Shirley Wiegand, another professor at the Oklahoma law school, who had become a close friend of Hill. Wiegand and Leisha Self, another woman member of the law school faculty, were Hill's personal confidants over the weekend.
Explaining how Hill made her decision, Wiegand said, "I know it was not taken with the advice of any of the interest groups. I know of a couple of calls to the (law) school (by outsiders), but for the few of us involved, we felt it was very dangerous to accept help from them. That was not what she had in mind. Later, when the folks (from various interest groups) started trying to get involved, she made it very clear that she didn't want them involved. She knew that would be misinterpreted. She doesn't align herself with political factions. She still doesn't call herself a feminist."
Although Hill did hold quiet convictions about women's rights, it was not political considerations that embroiled Hill's decision, according to Wiegand. "She is a private person and she didn't want to disrupt Clarence Thomas's life or her life," Wiegand said, but finally Hill proceeded, thinking this was her "civic duty."
On Monday, Sept. 23, Hill called the committee. She said she wanted to send her own statement of what had taken place between her and Thomas; she was willing to have the FBI make its investigation, using her name. Later in the day, Hill faxed her four-page, unsworn statement to the committee. Those who read it were shocked.
The allegations in the law professor's statement were almost too bizarre to be believable. When Thomas was her boss, according to Hill, he had repeatedly called her into his office, ostensibly on work-related matters, only to start talking about sex. He talked in vivid terms about the pornographic movies he had seen. Scenes he found particularly fascinating showed women copulating with animals, group sex, and rape, all of which he described to Hill in great detail.
He kept asking her to go out with him, with obvious implications. Biden, who had all but shunted aside the grotesque details underpinning the sexual harassment charge, realized something had to be done fast. He could no longer afford to ignore Hill's accusations, even though it was already past the 11th hour in terms of the committee vote.
(From the book "Capitol Games," by Timothy M. Phelps and Helen Winternitz. Copyright, 1992, Timothy M. Phelps and Helen Winternitz. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Hyperion. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.)
Tomorrow: Breaking the story.
Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.