Hill is graphic, Thomas bitter Viewers react with tears, rage, fears and doubts

October 12, 1991|By Susan Baer and Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Susan Baer and Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Judith Hirshberg, a City Council aide in Los Angeles, sat spellbound in front of a television set at National Airport yesterday, watching intently as Professor Anita F. Hill testified that Judge Clarence Thomas had once made sexually-loaded comments to her about her clothes and appearance.

Ms. Hirshberg leaned over, tapped her husband on the knee and whispered, "That's happened to me."

By the end of the law professor's opening statement, Ms. Hirshberg had tears in her eyes.

"I am furious," she said. "I can't tell you how enraged I am right now. I'm ready to cry. I've experienced the same thing -- not as drastically. . . One just lives with the scars."

Her husband, businessman Arthur Hirshberg, said he too was moved by the testimony, "as much as I can feel it as a man."

The dozens of travelers who flooded an airport lounge yesterday to watch the hearings, along with viewers around the country reached by telephone, had varying reactions to the testimony.

Often, those differences split along gender lines, women generally being more sympathetic with Ms. Hill's story and men being more doubtful about the timing, credibility and severity of her allegations, and more disturbed about the Senate's performance.

"What I'm concerned about is, when he was becoming a federal judge, why didn't she stick it to him then?" asked Dennis Whitmire, a product manager from Columbus, Ohio. "Why is this just coming out now? Does anyone remember what they did 10 years ago?"

Mr. Whitmire said he thinks race was a factor in some public judgments about Judge Thomas but that "we've gotten past color. Now it's a male-female issue."

Bellina Veronesi of Chapel Hill, N.C., said she, too, noticed a male-female dichotomy. "Right down the middle," she said. "It's quite incredible. Men have no idea why women are so angry. They're so certain they know what's best for everyone."

But David Raskin, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah and a veteran of 800 sexual abuse and harassment cases, said of Ms. Hill's testimony that she "certainly satisfied many of the criteria for assessing validity of statement."

"She has frequently and repeatedly failed to take opportunities where she could have been more negative to him, where she could have heaped it on. . . . She has shown no indication of any vengeance, any vendetta against him. She has been very careful and correct. I think she has been very credible. I don't see, at this point, what he can do to undo all that."

Mr. Raskin found Judge Thomas' opening statement "impressive" but noted that a categorical denial did not give psychologists "much to work on. I have many, many times seen very convincing, adamant, unwavering statements from people who are flat-out lying. It doesn't impress me. Simply saying, 'I

didn't do it, I didn't do it' tells us nothing other than that the person is not wavering."

Even within married couples, there were contrasting reactions to yesterday's hearings. David Winstead, a bank president from Essex, Conn., was most outraged at the Senate's handling of the confirmation proceedings. "Congress has lost a lot," he said. "They look like a bunch of bozos. I think they're on trial as much as Hill and Thomas."

But his wife, Pamela Reeser, a physician, said, "I'm a little more emotional about it, as are all the women I speak to. When I speak to men, it's clearly evident how different our perspectives are. I never considered myself a feminist, but this has conjured up a lot of feelings of the last 10 to 15 years."

Several women said that yesterday's testimony by Ms. Hill was difficult to watch, in some cases because it hit close to home.

"Having been a victim of sexual harassment, it's very uncomfortable to even watch it -- and I'm not saying she's right or wrong," said Jan Runkle, a Trenton, N.J., consultant.

"I never came forward. I stayed in the situation because I felt, 'What could I do? Who's going to believe me?' "

She and other women said Ms. Hill's anecdotes appeared to be clear-cut instances of sexual harassment, a number of men saw a much grayer picture.

"Maybe they're both telling the truth and they just perceived what they said two different ways," Mr. Whitmire said.

"But her testimony doesn't even matter. Judge Thomas was done in the minute she made the allegations because it's one those allegations you can't prove. What is sexual harassment, anyway? I'm sure every man in this place has been guilty of sexual harassment."

But judgments about yesterday's proceedings didn't always pit male against female.At yesterday's Rotary Club lunch in Fredonia, Kan., men and women were in total accord.

"Everybody kind of feels the same way: Enough is enough," said Meade Smith, club president. "Everybody feels like, 'Hey, it's just gotten out of control.' Only one half of one percent of the nation would ever qualify.

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