Hearing links the accuser and the accused in pain

October 12, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Anita Hill entered the room wide-eyed as a fawn, blinking at the flashbulbs of hissing cameras. Then she sat primly beneath the chandeliers and huge marble columns to tell a tableful of U.S. senators how Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas described for her the glories of hard-core pornography.

This was "Geraldo," "Oprah," and "Donahue" come to Capitol Hill, wrapped incongruously in the hushed decorum of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It was, as Judge Thomas himself described it, the climactic day of a confirmation process that has become "Kafkaesque."

On its fringes were partisans of both sides, cheering and jeering inthe echoing hallways of the Russell Senate Office Building.

But at the core of the event were Ms. Hill the accuser and Judge Thomas the accused, joined in an odd partnership of personal pain and mutual public embarrassment. Each claims irrevocable damage at the hands of the other, each says the other is lying, and both say their lives will never be the same.

Mr. Thomas took his grievances further yesterday, hushing the room with an angry, sweeping denunciation, saying, "I have endured this ordeal for 103 days -- reporters sneaking into my garage to examine books I read, reporters and interest groups swarming over divorce papers looking for dirt, unnamed people starting preposterous rumors, calls all over the country specificallyrequesting dirt.

"This is not American. This is Kafkaesque. It has got to stop. . . . Yesterday I called my mother. She was confined to her bed, unable to work and unable to stop crying. Enough is enough."

Ms. Hill was upset as well, not just with Judge Thomas and his alleged sexual harassment of 10 years ago, but with her lost anonymity.

"It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone but my closest friends," she said.

"Telling the world is the most difficult experience of my life."

But the world was apparently itching to hear.

Senate press aides said they received more media requests for seating at yesterday's hearing than for any previous event -- and that includes the 1973 Watergate hearings that eventually toppled a president.

The result was standing room only, and among the spectators lined up along the walls without anywhere to sit was Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., who stoically watched the proceedings, arms crossed, for several hours.

Tourists and curiosity seekers lucky enough to get a seat waitedhours to get in.

For their trouble, they got testimony that at times bordered on soft-core porn, causing some members of the audience to blush and stare at the floor. Others covered up smiles or suppressed giggles, while some nudged their neighbors with a knowing look.

Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., brought on one such moment with a question any daytime talk-show host would be proud of.

"Can you tell me," he asked Ms. Hill, "what was the most embarrassing of all the instances [of sexual harassment] of the ones you have alleged?"

Ms. Hill, seeming to re-live the embarrassment as she spoke, answered haltingly that it was the time Judge Thomas described "women with large breasts engaging in sex with animals" and other such activities.

Mr. Biden also sought more information on Judge Thomas' alleged discussions of the sizes of various men's sexual organs, including his own.

Mr. Biden's persistent questions in this area finally elicited an answer explaining that Judge Thomas once told Ms. Hill of a porno-movie star known as "Long Dong Silver."

Though some uneasy snickering resulted, some senators either didn't get the pun or weren't comfortable repeating it.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who led what amounted to a cross-examination of Ms. Hill, later referred to the character as "Long John Silver."

All the questions, of course, were ostensibly designed to help decide the fitness of Judge Thomas to sit on the highest court in the land, a court that during obscenity cases traditionally takes great pains to use bland euphemisms instead of the terms mentioned frequently yesterday.

But one of the day's most uncomfortable moments had nothing to do with lewdness or sexual suggestion. Shortly after Ms. Hill entered theroom to begin her testimony, Mr. Biden ordered seats to be cleared behind her so her family could come inside and listen.

As her parents walked in to take their seats, Ms. Hill introduced them and told the committee that her mother, Irma, would turn 80 on Oct. 16.

Then, with the grim knowledge of what Ms. Hill was about to describe hanging in the air, Mr. Biden blurted, "Happy birthday in advance" to her mother.

There were also testy moments, most of them resulting from bickering between the Republicans and Democrats on the committee.

The first came shortly after Judge Thomas read his opening statement and departed.

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