Bedlam at the boys club

Sandy Grady

October 11, 1991|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- IS SHE lying or is he lying? Did Clarence Thomas make X-rated sexual advances to Anita Hill?

The teledrama Friday is being hyped as a trial by fire -- Thomas vs. Hill in a sort of "TV Porn Court Theater."

But that's not the whole story.

The powerful male politicians of the U.S. Senate will also be on trial.

Sure, Thomas has a lifeSandyGradytime Supreme Court job at stake. Hill's reputation is on the line. But for senators who question Hill under the TV lights, something more is at risk: their careers.

They know women vote -- indeed, more often than men -- and their memories are long. Women who burned up Capitol Hill switchboards, outraged by the bungling of Hill's charges against Thomas, shared one scathing opinion of the U.S. Senate: Male chauvinist buffoons.

For Republicans the task will be as tricky as carrying a can of gasoline through a bonfire. They must break down the truth of Hill's sexual accusations without appearing to be jackbooted bullies.

Did he talk dirty to you, Ms. Hill? Did he pressure you for sex? Did he rap about pornographic movies? Then why did you chase him to another job? Why did you make the calls in this phone log?

Not exactly Emily Post's rules of etiquette.

No wonder Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., maligned boss of the #F Judiciary Committee, said, "This will not be an easy hearing. It will not be easy for the members or Ms. Hill or Thomas. It will be uncomfortable."

True, senators are old hands at browbeating witnesses or deciding conflicts. But the topics have been B-2 bombers or gun control, not a face-to-face, male-vs.-female dispute over sex.

Biden's right. It will be embarrassing and painful. Especially when not all senators on the Judiciary panel are reputed to be sexual saints.

But to Republicans, their mission is nasty and blunt: If Thomas is to win, they must batter Hill's poise, authority and character on national TV.

You sensed Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., caustic Thomas supporter, firing a warning shot on the Senate floor: "Ms. Hill will be belittled, pounded, destroyed. Instead of sexual harassment, she'll see real harassment, Washington-style."

As if sexual harassment were not "real."

The Republican slash-and-burn strategy against Hill was made plain Wednesday by Simpson aide Stan Cannon.

"We don't want to attack her credibility, we want to attack her story," said Cannon. "We're going to be very firm with her but treat her with respect . . . I think the gloves are off on both sides."

Any first-year law student can spot inconsistencies Republicans will try to rip apart in Hill's narrative: If Thomas' sexual innuendoes created a "hostile environment," why did she follow him to a second Washington agency? Why the log of 10 phone calls to him, some with friendly messages? Why wait 10 years to fire her bombshell?

Hill, an authoritative, no-nonsense law professor, no doubt has answers. (She calls the phone logs "garbage.") But no sham gentility by Hill's questioners will muffle the anger of many women watching on television:

Same old ploy -- blame the victim.

The prospect of Republican firebrands such as Simpson and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, verbally mugging a woman sexual accuser on TV, perhaps into tears, does not thrill the party's top politicos.

They're jittery over a female backlash. The GOP guys were already worried about losing Republican women in 1992 because of the anti-abortion hard line.

"This invokes the idea the party is controlled by Good Ol' Boys who don't give a damn about us," Ann Stone, Republicans For Choice leader, told the Wall Street Journal.

But Republicans can't afford squeamishness in the Hill vs. Thomas confrontation. Bush wants to win badly. He probably has 45 votes. If it takes a gang mugging of Hill to regain six defecting, moderate Democrats, expect brass knucks.

"One of the two isn't telling the truth," said Sen. James Exon, D-Neb., a key vote.

But Thomas, a man who stonewalled the Senate and swore he'd never in his life talked about the Roe vs. Wade controversy, isn't a paragon of credibility.

So yes, the Thomas vs. Hill showdown could be brutally messy. But a couple of good things may transcend this TV melodrama:

First, all over Washington Wednesday -- and I suspect across the country -- you could hear men and women wrestling with the complexities of sexual harassment. What is it? Mostly, women talked. And men for the first time listened.

"Men just don't get it," said Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., echoing a common complaint. "I've heard more honest talk in two days than in 20 years."

Second, women who fume about "98 white males" in the Senate now realize they must aggressively elect their own gender, especially in states such as Pennsylvania and Texas with no congresswomen.

Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas won't be alone in the TV dock.

"The Senate," said Arlen Specter, R-Pa., "is on trial."

So far the Boys Club members look like louts who need a remedial course in Sex Education 101.

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