PERSPECTIVES ON THE THOMAS CONTROVERSY : The Elites and the People in Conflict : It's the American creed that the law applies to the highest officials--but 23% of us would exempt a Supreme Court justice.

Jeff Smith teaches legal writing, among other courses, in the UCLA Writing Programs

One of the overlooked lessons of the Clarence Thomas hearings is the wide and dangerous gap that's been uncovered between popular opinion in America and the assumptions of political and social elites.

However strange it may sound in view of the bitterness of the proceedings, there were key points on which all of the elites involved--politicians, lawyers, reporters, "experts," even Thomas and Anita Faye Hill themselves--did agree. For instance, they agreed that sexual harassment--a kind of employment discrimination--by the chairman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would be a ground for disqualifying that person from the Supreme Court.

But many ordinary Americans did not accept this premise. This was shown in both public-opinion surveys and in "man on the street" news interviews.

Quite apart from the pluralities who believed that Thomas was probably telling the truth, a Times-Mirror poll revealed that about 16% of women believed Anita Hill but still didn't think Thomas should be kept off the high court. The same percentage of blacks thought that Thomas was definitely or probably lying, but still did not oppose his confirmation.

And when the New York Times/CBS News poll asked what should happen if the charges were true, a startling 23% of respondents said "confirm." This was after Thomas' sworn denial--meaning that almost one-quarter of Americans condone both harassment and a judge's lying under oath.

The poll results are backed by comments like that of the salesman who told Cable Network News that it didn't matter if the charges were true: Thomas' reputation still had been unfairly damaged. Or the suggestion that another man made to a newspaper reporter that people should be judged on "their ability to do the job," not on their personal lives.

Then there was the 43-year-old woman quoted in one account as follows: "I suppose he did harass her a little bit. I personally believe he did all those things. But they're making too big a deal out of it. It's not like he's been raping women and beating children."

Comments like thes indicate what's dangerous about all this. Harassment, even "a little bit," is illegal. So is perjury. Neither is simply a private matter. And anyone (especially anyone in Thomas' position) who is proved to have done either will have his reputation damaged, all right--but it's ludicrous to call this unfair.

To put it another way, if the proverbial "smoking gun" were now to appear, proving that Anita Hill has been right all along, Thomas would face disbarment and possible prosecution for perjury. Congress would have little choice but to impeach him.

But many Americans don't see it that way at all. To them, the law evidently doesn't really count. Even--or especially--persons in high places should be allowed to break it.

Now, maybe the law isn't well enough known or maybe its rationales aren't fully grasped. Or maybe people just aren't putting two and two together, to see that Law A plus Violation B should equal Consequence C.

Either way, we're in trouble. It's not just that people who don't know or care about the law are less likely to follow it. More important, apathy or incomprehension like this undermines the whole notion of a society based on values. For law is simply the embodiment of our agreed-upon values. We have agreed, as a society, that people shouldn't lie under oath, that they shouldn't harass or coerce other people and that they shouldn't violate a public trust by engaging in acts directly contrary to the duties they're sworn to carry out.

At least, the elites have agreed to all of this. What the Thomas-Hill affair revealed is that elites may be "out in front" of the public even on questions as basic as these.

And here is the threat in this situation. If elites are out in front of the people just a little, well, that's leadership. But if elites are too far out in front, if significant sectors of the public simply can't grasp what their leaders are doing or why, then the very legitimacy of our institutions is imperiled.

The "house divided" that Lincoln said couldn't stand, still in important ways can't--even if today the divide is along lines of education and social class rather than geography. As global events keep reminding us, political institutions can't survive in the long run when even large minorities don't believe in the principles on which they're based.

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