As he moves toward formally entering the Democratic presidential race, Joe Biden has repeatedly expressed regret for how he handled one of the most consequential challenges of his career in the Senate — the 1991 hearings into Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
But he has not put the decades-old issue to rest.
Biden, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, has rankled rather than reassured many critics by portraying himself as powerless to have conducted the hearing differently.
“To this day I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us,” Biden said, speaking of Hill at a charity event in New York in late March. “I wish I could’ve done something.”
His critics call that excuse flimsy, saying Biden has downplayed his considerable authority as the committee chairman.
“He could have done more,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor who assisted Hill’s legal team in 1991. “That’s not an apology. An apology starts with a full acknowledgement of the wrong you have committed. If he wants the women’s vote, he’s got to do something more than symbolic stuff.”
A review of the record of the hearings 28 years ago shows how much Biden was a creature of a Senate that was clubby and male-dominated for much of his early career. The Hill-Thomas hearing was so long ago that the committee received one of the most volatile political documents of the decade — Hill’s affidavit outlining her claims — over a fax machine.
Biden’s handling of the hearings go beyond being just a single data point in his 36-year Senate voting record. The incident became a test of leadership in a climactic political event as Hill’s allegations blew up what were already high-stakes confirmation hearings. Thomas, a young black conservative, had been picked by President George H.W. Bush to replace Thurgood Marshall, the legendary civil rights lawyer and the court’s first African American justice.
Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, alleged that Thomas harassed her by talking in sordid detail about sex and pornography while she she was an employee of his at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas flatly denied the allegations.
The Senate was singularly ill equipped to deal with the subject at the time. It had no black and only two female members. The Judiciary Committee had none of either.
The hearings turned a spotlight on that glaring lack of diversity. The image of a young black woman sitting alone behind a witness table, telling an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee a lurid tale was televised across the country and the world. Never before had sexual harassment been discussed so explicitly on Capitol Hill.
“There was a real and perceived problem the committee faced,” Biden said at the March charity event. “They were a bunch of white guys.”
Biden had never shown much appetite for pressing nominees on issues related to their personal lives. Another committee leader, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, had been involved earlier in the year in a drunken Florida beach scene with a nephew who was accused of rape.
For about two weeks before the nomination came to a vote, Biden and a few staff members knew of the allegations but kept them out of public view because Hill requested anonymity.
Biden did not deem the allegations important enough to postpone the committee’s scheduled vote on Thomas’s nomination. When he announced his opposition to Thomas in a floor speech he said, “My view on this matter has nothing to do with Judge Thomas’ character. For he is a man of character.”
News of the allegations and Hill’s identity leaked only after the committee voted. At that point, Biden came under enormous pressure to investigate. Several House Democratic women — including Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado — marched to the Senate to demand the hearings be reopened.
Schroeder said in an interview that, when she complained to Biden that the process was being rushed, his response was a window to the ways of the Senate. Biden told her, she said, that he had given his word to Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), Thomas’s sponsor, while they were in the Senate’s all-male gym that it would be a “quick hearing.”
“Is that where the deals are all cut? Really?” said Schroeder. “That stuck in my craw. It was a boys club and the boys were not really wanting to yield.” Danforth, asked about Schroeder’s account, said he did not remember such a conversation with Biden.
Once the Hill hearing was set, Biden accepted a Republican demand that Thomas be given the chance to testify both before and after Hill. He and his fellow Democrats did little to force Thomas to respond to accusations he flatly denied. Thomas heightened the racial tensions surrounding the committee by calling the allegations a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”
With Democrats doing little to defend Hill, Republicans grilled her, challenging her credibility and motives, even suggesting she made up the charges.
“We just got totally outplayed by the Republicans,’’ said Cynthia Hogan, a top committee aide to Biden at the time. “They had a coordinated attack planned well in advance, and they all participated. We didn’t have ourselves ready to fight back.”
Biden later explained that he was hogtied by Senate rules that give broad latitude to individual senators.
“My one regret is that I wasn’t able to tone down the attacks on her by some of my Republican friends,” he said in a 2017 interview with Teen Vogue. “I mean, they really went after her. As much as I tried to intervene, I did not have the power to gavel them out of order.’’
Biden did, however, have the authority to call other women to testify to corroborate Hill’s account, but he did not. One woman, Angela Wright, was prepared to testify that she, too, had been harassed by Thomas. Members of both parties were wary of calling Wright to testify, Hogan said. A written statement from her was submitted instead. But it landed in the wee hours of the morning and got little attention.
The final Senate vote ended up being so close — 52-48 — that Hill supporters believed that the testimony of another accuser would have doomed Thomas’ nomination.
Biden supporters are confident that this chapter in his Senate career will not weigh heavily in the minds of voters, especially among women too young to have witnessed the hearings. In the years since, Biden established himself as a champion of women’s issues like the Violence Against Women Act.
Many voters don’t currently have a strong view of the case. A poll by Morning Consult taken in March found that 30% of Democratic voters disapproved of how Biden handled Hill’s testimony and 17% said it would make them less likely to vote for him in the primary. But 44% of Democrats didn’t have an opinion.
Biden’s handling of Hill’s allegations, however, rose to prominence for a new generation of women during last fall’s hearings into sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. And the issue could also tie in with concerns about Biden’s tendency to hug and touch people, including strangers. That subject seems not to be taking an immediate political toll on Biden’s support, several polls have shown, but the polls also show some evidence that it has raised doubts in voters’ minds.
Fresh scrutiny of Biden’s handling of Hill’s charges through the lens of #MeToo politics could spotlight one of his broader political liabilities — the perception that he is a man of another political era, and sometimes out of step with the times.
For some, the issue already forms a powerful block against supporting the former vice president.
"It literally does not matter what else Biden says about sexual assault if he cannot acknowledge his own culpability in putting a sexual assaulter on the Supreme Court and then pretending for years like he was powerless to stop it,” Jess Morales Rocketto, political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said on Twitter.
By contrast, former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was one of the House members who marched to the Senate at the time demanding action, does not think voters should hold the case against Biden.
“I believe the committee was very uncomfortable with the whole thing; they didn’t know how to deal with it,” she said. “I believe Joe when he says he wishes he could have done more.”
The most important thing he did, Boxer said, came after the 1992 election swept four more women in the Senate. Biden, to ensure no woman ever again faced an all-male Judiciary Committee, recruited two of the newly elected women senators to sit on the panel.