Beleaguered senators empathize with Thomas Many have also endured close scrutiny of lives

October 14, 1991|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Judge Clarence Thomas had only begun to describe the anguish Anita F. Hill's allegations of sexual harassment had caused him when a voice from the Senate Judiciary Committee dais broke in. "I know exactly what you mean," Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona blurted out.

Mr. DeConcini is a Democrat, but his exclamation of empathy for a beleaguered Republican underscored that many of the senators who are about to weigh Judge Thomas' fitness for the U.S. Supreme Court are uniquely equipped to understand what it feels like to have one's personal character and conduct dissected in public and in excruciating detail.

In Mr. DeConcini's case, he was one of the "Keating Five" accused of improperly helping fallen thrift executive Charles H. Keating. As a result, he was the subject of long and highly critical scrutiny by the Senate Ethics Committee, which concluded in February that some of Mr. DeConcini's actions "gave the appearance of being improper."

Indeed, among Judiciary Committee members, in addition to Mr. DeConcini, Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del.; Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.; Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio; and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Mass., have also been the targets of public scrutiny and criticism that left painful scars.

And among the Senate as a whole, there are many more.

"There's more sympathy for Judge Thomas than they can express," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor who has written a book on press attacks on politicians' character. "You can see it in their faces -- even those who will vote against Thomas because of political agenda."

bTC This sensitivity is not expected to sway any votes, particularly since both the judge and his accuser may be considered victims of unfair vilification. But the senators' own struggles have given them a visceral understanding of what it means to be at the center of a controversy like this.

And it has added a tinge of dramatic irony to the hearings -- not least on the infrequent moments when attention turns to Mr. Kennedy. The Massachusetts senator has a much-discussed reputation for womanizing and heavy drinking. And he has felt the full glare of the national spotlight as a result of the charges filed against his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, by a woman who says that Mr. Smith sexually assaulted her at the senator's estate in Palm Beach, Fla.

The committee members have squabbled, in fact, over who has been most hurt by personal attacks made through leaks.

Mr. Biden, who was forced to withdraw from the 1988 presidential race over his unattributed use of a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, insisted Saturday afternoon that he had been the most injured. "No one on this committee has been more damaged by the leak by an unethical person that me," he asserted. "I fully understand."

But Mr. DeConcini, who nodded and even smiled as Judge Thomas railed at the unfairness of his accusers, strongly disagreed. "I take exception . . . that no one has been more hurt than you," he insisted moments later. "I thought I was going to die."

The Republicans on the committee have had no such problems. But they, too, have shown an appreciation of politicians' vulnerability. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, who has taken a lead role in defending Judge Thomas, asserted last Monday that the attack was similar to the pre-election assaults engineered in some political campaigns.

The sex harassment charge was an "October surprise," Mr. Hatch said, "a last-ditch, last-second" personal attack to which elected officials are vulnerable.

The issue clearly resonated beyond the Senate Caucus Room as well. Sen. Charles S. Robb, the Virginia Democrat who has battled accusations of womanizing and attending parties at which drugs were used, promptly compared the attacks on Judge Thomas to his own ordeal.

"They know they're all vulnerable to it," Mr. Sabato said. "They know anybody can be destroyed -- anybody. We all have some embarrassing encounter, some failed relationship."

This year, the burden of accusatory headlines has become known to Mr. Metzenbaum, one of the Senate's most tireless critics of shady business practices. Mr. Metzenbaum and other co-owners of a Little Tavern restaurant in Washington have been sued for allegedly misrepresenting the restaurant's financial condition and failing to pay all of its taxes before selling it. He has denied the charges.

Mr. Leahy, meanwhile, resigned from the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1987 after acknowledging that he had shown a reporter a draft copy of a report on the Iran-contra affair that the panel had voted not to release.

The politicians know, too, that once the charges are out there, they can take on a life of their own. Mr. Kennedy, whose habits have been scrutinized again this year because of the pending allegations against his nephew, has not entirely succeeded in making himself inconspicuous in the proceeding.

Members of the committee adjourned Saturday night early enough to catch the inevitable parody of their hearing on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" show.

A skit on the show showed the panel members examining witnesses with an unseemly interest in Judge Thomas' alleged advances toward Ms. Hill. Perhaps the studio audience's biggest laugh was provoked when the actor portraying Mr. Kennedy asked the Ms. Hill character, "Was he drunk?"

Of course, the panel members are far from alone. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., was cleared this year in a partially inconclusive inquiry into influence-peddling charges against him.

Sen. Mark O. Hatfield has faced charges that he benefited from individuals who stood to gain from their relationship with him.

Ross Baker, political science professor at Rutgers University, said their sympathies with victims of character attacks will not influence the senators' decisions "nearly as much as what they see in their office mail bag. But will they feel empathy? You bet."

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