89.1 WEMU

Does The Anita Hill Timeline Set A Precedent For Christine Blasey Ford?

Sep 20, 2018
Originally published on September 24, 2018 6:28 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, says she is willing to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but her lawyers say, A, it won't be Monday, and, B, the committee needs to agree to terms that are fair and that ensure her safety. We asked NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg if there's a precedent for this fight, and she has this look back to how Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment against now-Justice Clarence Thomas were handled and mishandled 27 years ago.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Late in the summer of 1991, Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic staffers began to hear rumors about Thomas sexually harassing one or more women who had worked for him. Just days before confirmation hearings, it was more than rumors. In early September, after twice refusing to discuss the matter, Hill mulled her options, torn between her desire by then to give her information to the committee and her desire not to be publicly identified.

As all this was going on behind the scenes, the confirmation hearings opened on September 10, chaired by then-Senator Joseph Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: The hearing will come to order.

TOTENBERG: The hearings lasted 10 days and covered only Thomas' legal views, speeches and opinions during his short 18 months as an appeals court judge. But away from the TV cameras, Democratic senators began to worry about ignoring Hill's charges. Following standard practice, Biden asked the Bush White House to authorize a further FBI investigation. On September 23, the FBI interviewed Hill, on September 25 Thomas. Hill also sent an affidavit to the committee setting out her charges.

On September 27, the judiciary committee met to vote on the nomination. While the Hill charges were not public, Biden had kept the Republicans in the loop. And at the hearing, this reporter could see some document that all the senators were looking at. And Biden made this statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I believe there are certain things that are not at issue at all, and that is his character. This is about what he believes, not about who he is. And I know my colleagues will refrain, and I urge everyone else to refrain from personalizing this battle.

TOTENBERG: Sitting at the press table, I smelled a rat. A week later on October 6, I had the story nailed down, including an interview with Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANITA HILL: He is using his position of power for personal gain, for one thing. And he did it in a very just ugly and intimidating way.

TOTENBERG: What is happening to Christine Ford now, including the threats and media frenzy, happened then to Anita Hill. But her reaction was not the same. The day after the story exploded, Hill held a press conference and said she would testify. Democrats controlled the Senate at the time and had agreed to a vote on the Thomas nomination on Tuesday, October 8. But on that day, it was clear Republicans did not have the votes to confirm Thomas. And on October 11, the second round of hearings began.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Professor Hill has made two requests to this committee. First, she has asked us to investigate her charges against Judge Thomas. And second, she had asked that these charges remain confidential. I believe that we have honored both her requests.

TOTENBERG: But, Biden said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: The landscape has changed. We are thus here today freed from the restrictions which had previously limited our work.

TOTENBERG: All the witnesses who would appear before the committee were subpoenaed and sworn. That included four corroborating witnesses who testified about their contemporaneous conversations with Hill during the time she said she was harassed. But the main event was Hill versus Thomas, sex and lies set to a tune of American racial stereotypes - two African-American Yale Law School grads from dirt-poor, rural backgrounds, she with a quiet dignity reciting the indignities she testified were visited upon her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILL: He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes. He talked about pornographic materials.

TOTENBERG: And he had a furious rage in denial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLARENCE THOMAS: This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.

TOTENBERG: Back then, Republicans like Orrin Hatch supported the FBI returning to its investigation and praised the committee's bipartisan leadership.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ORRIN HATCH: When they heard about this the first time, they immediately ordered this FBI investigation which was a very right thing to do. It's the appropriate thing to do. They did what every other chairman and ranking member have done in the past.

TOTENBERG: But having the FBI involved also frightened off some witnesses who were afraid that Thomas' supporters would use raw data from the files to harm their reputations. When it was over, Thomas was confirmed by a two-vote margin, the narrowest in history. But women voters rebelled, bringing in what came to be known as The Year of the Woman and electing four new female and Democratic members of the Senate, including Dianne Feinstein, now the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Republicans and privately some Democrats now blame her for keeping Ford's charges a secret since July while Feinstein says she was honoring Ford's decision not to come forward. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.