Yalies watch with mix of pride and pain as their fellow alumni play out drama THOMAS HEARINGS

October 13, 1991|By David Margolick | David Margolick,New York Times News Service

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Professor Elias Clark, who has taught at Yale Law School for 40 years, sat in the cavernous Yale Commons, where 450 graduates gathered Friday evening to toast their alma mater and their own lost youth.

It was the beginning of the law school's annual alumni weekend, and so strong is the pull of this place over its graduates that the assembled diners had chosen an evening of windy oratory, rubber chicken and some singing law students calling themselves Habeas Chorus over another reunion of Yale alumni, which was being televised from Washington: the hearings into sexual harassment charges against Judge Clarence Thomas.

"I taught them all -- Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, Arlen Specter, John Danforth, James Brudney, John Doggett," said Mr. Clark, in a tone more sad than self-impressed. "I admire them all. They were all superior people, and I'm terribly conflicted."

Yale Law School has followed the confrontation between Mr. Thomas and Ms. Hill with the same mixture of fascination and horror, pity and prurience, as the world outside its Gothic walls.

Here as elsewhere, people's sentiments have swung back and forth, the sentiment of the moment depending upon whether it was Mr. Thomas or his accuser they last heard speak.

Whether out of exhaustion or disgust or the knowledge that they could catch whatever they missed on videotape, by yesterday afternoon interest had seemingly waned. A few alumni watched Mr. Thomas yesterday; a seminar on tax policy was packed.

At the same time, there is evident at Yale a peculiar combination of pride and pain that comes from having spawned so many of the drama's principal players.

Apart from Mr. Thomas, class of 1974, and Ms. Hill, who graduated in 1980, Yale can claim Mr. Danforth, the Missouri Republican senator and Mr. Thomas' most fervent supporter, who graduated in 1963; Mr. Specter of Pennsylvania, from the class of 1956, who questioned Ms. Hill for the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee; Mr. Brudney, the Senate staffer and law school classmate in whom Ms. Hill confided before making her charges, and Mr. Doggett, class of 1972, who claims that when it came to her relationships with men, Ms. Hill was prone to making things up.

Students packed the law school's basement television room in numbers exceeding even those found when "The Simpsons" or "L.A. Law" is on.

As the hearings aired Friday, some professors, like Jules Coleman, held referendums on whether to cancel class. Others, like Edward Zelinsky, forged ahead, fighting off feelings of irrelevance with irreverence.

"There's something momentous today on America's mind: the accelerated cost-recovery system," Mr. Zelinsky told a rump group of students in his federal income taxation class.

Alumni listened too, many on car radios while on the way to the reunion.

Mr. Specter, whose class was marking its 35th anniversary, had to cancel his trip to New Haven. So did Catherine MacKinnon, class of 1977, a feminist legal scholar who was too busy discussing sexual harassment for NBC to participate in a seminar at Yale.

In the manner of reunions everywhere, the alumni here this weekend graduated in years ending with one and six. Thus, while there were few classmates of either Mr. Thomas or Ms. Hill here, there were several of Mr. Specter's.

During his student days here, Mr. Specter won the school's oral advocacy prize. One classmate, Richard Semel of Hackensack, N.J., said he detected no slippage in Mr. Specter's skills.

"Arlen asked questions without spending the first 25 minutes in useless preambles, flowery phrases and fluff," he said. "He didn't push the woman around, but he got to the heart of the matter."

Among other Yalies, particularly younger ones, Mr. Specter received lower marks. Peter Zimroth, who graduated a decade after the senator and went on to become New York's corporation counsel, called Mr. Specter "mean spirited and small."

In the TV room, where sympathies for Ms. Hill ran high, Mr. Specter's questions were greeted with hisses and catcalls, and Ms. Hill's few pointed retorts drew applause, finger snapping and high-fives.

Sen. Joseph Biden was jeered for his long-windedness, and Republican senators were skewered. "People seem to have problems with the mere existence of Orrin Hatch," said first-year student Subodh Chandra.

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