He said, she said

Michael Hill

October 14, 1991|By Michael Hill

WHEN THE television networks test the pilots of their new programs, they often use a theater equipped with devices that allow viewers to register their immediate reactions. Viewers twist a knob in one direction when they see something they like, in the other when they see something they don't like.

If the nation's viewers had been equipped with such devices during this extended weekend -- a twist in one direction in favor of Clarence Thomas, the other in favor of Anita Hill -- the resulting graphs probably would have traced a serpentine shape, careening across the chart and back again.

It was high drama that at times descended to low comedy. Two witnesses of impeccable credentials and an apparent veracity, both of whom any lawyer would have been happy to put on the stand in front of a jury, told diametrical stories.

Though the senators who make up the Judiciary Committee often seemed reluctant to say it, one was telling the truth and the other was an outright liar.

That's the black and white, heroes and villains type of story that television likes the best. The only problem with this one is that Perry Mason never came along at the last minute to reveal the solution.

The Thomas-Hill controversy is the latest in a long line of congressional hearings -- Army-McCarthy, Kefauver, Watergate, Iran-contra -- that have grabbed the attention of the nation through television and refused to let go.

Ultimately, though, it resembles most a set of hearings from the nascent days of this medium, the investigation of allegations that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy, hearings that made Richard Nixon's career. As with Hiss and his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, there were two witnesses who seemed to be telling the truth. And, though he eventually went to jail for perjury, to this day Hiss maintains his innocence and has his supporters. Some of that could happen again.

Any survivors who made it to the close of the marathon hearings this morning probably figure that no matter how this is eventually resolved, decades from now both Hill and Thomas will still have their supporters.

What tipped the balance in Chambers' favor fortysome years ago were the so-called Pumpkin Papers, microfilm of classified documents that he had hidden in a pumpkin at his Carroll County farm.

Both sides in the Thomas-Hill battle have tried to come up with their version of the Pumpkin Papers. Sen. Orin Hatch of Utah, who seemed to be the Republicans' designated rhetorician, dramatically introduced his on Saturday morning, the finding that the name of the porn star that Hill referred to in her testimony was used in a sexual harassment suit in Kansas, which is in the same federal circuit as Oklahoma where Hill resides. It wasn't a smoking gun, but it was slightly warm.

For the Hill side, Sunday afternoon provided the one-two combination of four witnesses who said that Hill had told them of Thomas' alleged sexual harassment years ago -- apparently shooting down the recent-conspiracy theory -- and the news that Hill had taken and passed a polygraph.

Still, there was no knockout punch as the foursome for Hill were followed by four women, three men and then nine more women swearing to Thomas' completely admirable character. Finally in the wee hours of this morning, with Hill and Thomas apparently deciding not to return before the senators, the hearings were gaveled to a close. The tangle still refused to unravel.

With their complex mixture of sex and politics and race, of psychology and deceit, of the possibility of hidden lives and elaborate conspiracies, with both sides staking out positions on the volatile issues of sexual harassment and racial stereotyping, these hearings contained elements that made them perfect for television.

It was not surprising that initial ratings showed they far outdrew the baseball playoff game on Friday night, or that ABC reversed its initial plan and carried the hearings during the day yesterday.

CBS on Friday night, all three networks on Saturday afternoon, and NBC and CBS on Sunday stuck with their sports programming. Trying to pay off those huge rights fees far outweighed any sense of public service in the current network business-first atmosphere. PBS and, for cable subscribers, CNN and C-SPAN provided continuous coverage.

And NBC's "Saturday Night Live" provided instant parody for hearing-weary viewers, opening its weekend edition with a magnificently impersonated panel of senators giving a Clarence Thomas character advice on picking up women.

Beyond the particular, and at times prurient, appeal of these hearings was the appeal of all such productions. Since political conventions and presidential debates have become totally stage-managed affairs, hearings such as these provide some of the few instances the country gets to see its political process with makeup off.

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