At White House, men called shots Despite criticisms in past, no women had role in crisis

October 10, 1991|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When George Bush was running for president in 1988, his aides were so concerned about his apparent lack of support among female voters they went to great lengths to spotlight prominent female campaign staffers as prospective top presidential advisers.

Today, however, few of those women remain at the overwhelmingly male Bush White House, and none was involved in the deliberations and strategy sessions concerning how to handle the complaints of sexual harassment leveled against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

The observation is called irrelevant by White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. But it is among the pieces of supporting evidence cited by those who contend Mr. Bush may be just as insensitive as they say some Senate Democrats have been to the power of the sexual harassment issue.

Republican as well as Democratic political analysts note that the White House knew of the charges leveled at Judge Thomas by his former aide, Anita Hill, but they seemed just as eager as the Senate Judiciary Committee to dismiss them as groundless.

Further, analysts note that the tactical strategy developed within the male bastions of the White House after Ms. Hill's charges became public was to attack her credibility, a common legal defense maneuver at rape trials that is often offensive to women.

It is also being argued that the Thomas case calls attention to Mr. Bush's controversial record on women's issues, including his refusal to support damage payments for victims of sexual harassment in the civil rights bill now pending before Congress.

"I think there is definitely going to be political fallout for Bush," said Phyllis Kaminsky, a 1988 Bush campaign aide, media consultant and presidential appointee to the U.S. Air Force Academy Board. "This is an issue that many women consider to be fundamentally important. A lot of people at the White House knew about it and didn't do anything."

Ann F. Lewis, a Democratic political consultant, was one of several to raise the question, "Who's speaking for women at the White House? We didn't see any women consulted on this

because they aren't there."

The White House appears to be keenly aware of the danger lurking in the Thomas case for Mr. Bush.

Apart from reaffirming his support for Judge Thomas, the president has been silent and out of sight on the sexual harassment charges.

In his place, spokesman Fitzwater has spent the last three days tiptoeing through a minefield of reporter inquiries.

The spokesman has refused to discuss Mr. Bush's position generally on sexual harassment. He also won't say whether behavior of the kind Ms. Hill alleges would be considered by the president to disqualify Judge Thomas from consideration for the Supreme Court.

And while Mr. Fitzwater repeatedly called the charges against Judge Thomas a "smear campaign," he stopped short of directly implicating Ms. Hill in that effort.

The Thomas-Hill incident comes at a time when the Bush administration has tacitly acknowledged its political weakness with women on the abortion issue, and it has begun a campaign through Vice President Dan Quayle to try to rectify it.

Mr. Quayle hinted to reporters in an interview Tuesday that the president would likely support a change in the Republican Party platform language next year to embrace all viewpoints on abortion.

But Mr. Bush's political advisers are not yet inclined to push him beyond that to new positions on sex discrimination and workplace issues, such as sexual harassment, noting that voters who make their selections on so-called women's issues are not likely to support Mr. Bush anyway.

These advisers, however, may have underestimated the force of such issues even within their own party, some analysts say.

"Women view sexual harassment in a very different way than these men," said Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, a political organization that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights. "They have turned over a hornets' nest here, and I don't think they understand at all."

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