Every generation has its great personal controversy, a name or two that evoke passion and fury everywhere from the dinner table to the editorial pages. Our parents had Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. Their parents had Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Our generation has Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.
But while propagandists of the left and right have written much about these two protagonists of our time, there has been almost no hard investigative work done by those with no ax to grind. David Brock’s “The Real Anita Hill,” while well reviewed in some quarters, was so factually flawed that his book, underwritten by a group of Thomas supporters, is not viewed seriously in either the academic or journalistic communities.
But now come two Wall Street Journal reporters, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, both highly regarded for their journalistic and investigative skills. They have spent nearly three years delving into the lives of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill and while they have not found any “smoking gun,” they have turned up a great deal of new evidence, which, as the authors put it, “suggests that the truth in this matter favors her much more than was apparent at the time of the hearings.”
In “Strange Justice” the authors tell us that “if Thomas did lie under oath, as the preponderance of the evidence suggests, then his performance and that of the Senate confirming him, raises fundamental questions about the political process that placed him on the court.”
There is no way in a short review to summarize all the bits and pieces of evidence that Mayer and Abramson have amassed. But among other things, they have turned up many new witnesses who testify that Thomas had an avid interest in pornography at the time of the alleged Hill harassment--harassment that Hill said involved his talking to her about pornography. One woman, Kaye Savage, a civil servant who worked in the Reagan White House and who was friends with both Thomas and Hill, describes her shock when she walked into Thomas’ apartment and found the walls covered with pictures of naked women. Several co-workers are quoted as saying they heard of Thomas’ making remarks about pubic hairs on Coke cans--one of the most peculiar things that Hill alleged, and one that she was accused of making up.
Then, of course, there is their profile of Angela Wright, the North Carolina newspaper editor who was fired from her Equal Employment Opportunity Commission job by Thomas and was subpoenaed by the Judiciary Committee to come to Washington to tell about the “inappropriate” remarks she said Thomas made to her, such as asking what size her breasts were. Oddly, it is not Wright’s words that are most compelling, but those of her corroborating witness, an older woman named Rose Jourdain, who was Thomas’ speech writer at the time Wright worked for him. While Wright claimed at the time of the Senate hearings she was not the least bit traumatized by Thomas’ remarks, Jourdain says here that Wright was sufficiently rattled that she often came to her office in tears over Thomas’ treatment. Wright’s testimony, or lack of it, has become something of a cause celebre on the right, because Thomas supporters point out, with some justification, that Wright had a spotty employment record, having been fired from at least one job and having written a screw-you letter to a previous employer. But Jourdain is something else again, especially when you learn that on the final night of the Thomas hearings, she had just been released from the hospital, was unable to walk and was breaking pain pills in quarters so that she could stay awake to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sometime after midnight, she was told she would not be called. The committee had decided that it did not want to hear Wright or Jourdain and, with Wright’s consent, had released them from their subpoenas.
Mayer and Abramson have also spent a considerable amount of time examining the lives, loves, careers and ambitions of Thomas and Hill. Thomas comes out as an often brooding, angry and contrary man who years ago set his sights on replacing Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, and who would stop at little--including going to the hospital bed of NAACP lobbyist Althea Simmons--to get her endorsement for a judgeship. My hat is off to the authors for a chapter that will get little note in most reviews--their account of Thomas’ tenure at the EEOC and the problems he faced there, both administrative and political. This material is particularly complicated and difficult to explain, but the authors have made it as easy to consume as a lollipop.
Mayer and Abramson have taken the same microscope to Hill’s life, telling us about an interracial affair that apparently broke up because of her parents’ opposition, and other personal things that Hill no doubt would rather not have discussed. But as the authors confess, “while it is possible to document a great number of bits and pieces” of behavior in Thomas’ life that suggest he could well have done what Hill accused him of, in Hill’s life, there were virtually no pieces of evidence that would suggest she was either a liar or a fantasizer.
Indeed, Mayer and Abramson manage to dispose once and for all of the charge, made by a lawyer named John Burke in a firm Hill once worked for, that she had been fired. The charge was important because Hill denied being fired and said she left the firm voluntarily to go to work for Clarence Thomas. To discover the truth of the matter, Mayer and Abramson interviewed two dozen members of the firm and reviewed the firm’s employment records. They tell us that Hill’s evaluations show her making satisfactory but not outstanding progress. More important, the records do not show that John Burke, as he claimed, ever supervised Hill’s work. The records show instead that he did supervise the work of another black female associate from Yale, and his partners believe he confused the two women.
Mayer and Abramson do give us one fascinating insight into Hill. One of the haunting questions that has followed Hill is why she moved with Thomas to the EEOC from the Education Department. When I interviewed her originally, she said exactly what she would say in the days that followed, that the harassment had stopped, and she wasn’t sure of keeping her job at the Education Department once he left. It seemed a weak answer.
Mayer and Abramson’s explanation: She was ambitious. She didn’t like people to know that about her, perhaps she didn’t view it as a “nice” trait. After all, she’d always been one of those gifted people to whom friends and popularity come easily. Valedictorian of her predominantly white high-school class, she told her best friend that her ambition was some day to work in the White House. That, Mayer and Abramson tell us, is why she hunkered down and moved with Thomas. He was the star she had hitched her career to, and only when his treatment of her became unbearable did she leave.
In the end, “Strange Justice” presents a searing indictment of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and in particular its chairman, Joseph R. Biden, who is portrayed as the benign villain of the affair. Through the pages of the book, Biden is shown as a basically decent man, wanting to be fair to everyone but so intent on being liked by his colleagues, so flawed by a desire for popularity and a weakness when faced with confrontation, that he failed to do his duty in the confirmation process, failed the public, failed to protect Anita Hill from vilification and, in the end, failed Clarence Thomas too.
Sen. John Danforth, a member of the committee, is even tougher in his book “Resurrection,” portraying Biden as little more than a hypocrite and a weakling. But he is just as tough on himself, telling chapter and verse of how he became so involved in the war psychology of the battle that he sold out the values he has always held dear. As Danforth puts it: “In the absence of a legal process for conducting Clarence’s defense, I was willing to turn to an extralegal process: the attempt to gather material wherever I could and dump it into the public domain. Are there former law students with nasty stories? Find them and release their statements to the media. Is there a psychiatrist with a theory of delusion? Call a news conference and introduce him. Is there a former employer who disputes the accuser’s testimony? Take his affidavit to the press gallery.” Danforth tells us without blanching that his conduct was so awful, so unprincipled, that some of his own staff threatened to quit, and behind his back simply did not do some of the things he told them to do. He also reveals that a number of important Thomas supporters thought Thomas should take a lie detector test to rebut Hill’s polygraph. Thomas refused.
“Resurrection” is fascinating and well worth reading, for Danforth’s relative clarity about his own conduct and the conduct of the Senate. Indeed, he concedes that even though it was he who pushed Biden into an immediate and short hearing on the Hill charges, he now regrets it because the stain of those allegations will remain on Thomas, he says, for the justice’s entire life. If the Republicans had had three weeks, Danforth now says, they would have been able to discredit Hill.
Maybe, maybe not. Mayer and Abramson spent almost three years at it and failed, but then, they didn’t have subpoena power.
Danforth’s book is a moving defense of his friend Clarence Thomas, and an account of the terrible injustice Danforth believes was done to Thomas. The senator describes Thomas’ suffering, complete with scenes of Thomas writhing in pain on the floor, saying at one point that he can’t go on.
Of the two books, “Strange Justice” is, of course, far more comprehensive, objective and probing, and it is a compelling narrative that will keep you awake at night. But “Resurrection” will keep you up too, and with both of these books, whether you believed Anita Hill or Clarence Thomas, you may find yourself, once again, in a towering rage.