In image fight, reputations rise, fall suddenly

October 14, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — `TC WASHINGTON -- Up until the weekend, the lowdown on Anita Hill went something like this: She was the Oklahoma farm girl who made it on her own, the prim law professor who cast aside pride and privacy to tell the nation about the real Clarence Thomas.

The image of Judge Thomas, meanwhile, had taken a tumble -- from self-made man to self-made public relations disaster. What had been an almost certain seat on the U.S. Supreme Court suddenly seemed very far away.

By late Saturday, after a nudge by the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ms. Hill's image had shifted. She was the temperamental woman prone to unfounded fantasies, a liar with a chip on her shoulder and a political ax to grind, willing to say anything to keep Judge Thomas off the U.S. Supreme Court. And as she fell, Judge Thomas ascended, now the innocent victim, wounded but fighting back against a malicious campaign of disinformation.

Early yesterday afternoon the image seismograph trembled anew, and Ms. Hill was again the trusted friend, a bedrock of honesty and conservatism, with Judge Thomas again falling into question.

But in the evening four of his friends took the witness stand and dramatically reversed the trend again.

Thus has the senatorial tug-of-war over the reputations of Ms. Hill and Judge Thomas proceeded before a national television audience. It is a contest with no room for a subtle middle ground or compromise, because only an extreme view will allow an easy decision on the matter of whether Judge Thomas sexually harassed Ms. Hill on the job 10 years ago.

Ms. Hill began the struggle with a self-portrait Friday. She talked of her conservative upbringing and its ethic of hard work and honesty. She restated her reluctance in coming forward and her previous hopes for confidentiality. Then she gave the Thomas image a shove downward, describing how he took her aside several times in his office to ask for dates or tell her the vivid details of pornographic movies.

The senators of the Judiciary Committee, both Democrats and Republicans, treated her with deference, complimenting her poise and apologizing for her lost privacy.

Then she left the room. Judge Thomas entered. The process reversed.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, while continuing to praise the intelligence of Ms. Hill, said he found her story unrealistic and worrisome. It was, he concluded, the handiwork of "slick lawyers" driven by feminist groups bent on destroying Judge Thomas.

Mr. Hatch helped accelerate the image shift by suggesting that Ms. Hill might have woven her tale from threads found in novels and law books. Republican colleague Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania suggested she might have committed perjury.

By implication, the only question remaining was whether she lied knowingly or as the result of an elaborate fantasy, and Mr. Hatch addressed that question in an interview during a recess, saying, "I don't believe her. But I also think she believes what she is saying is true. I think she's become a captive of vicious outside groups that will stop at nothing."

In defending his own image Saturday, Judge Thomas also added to the negative portrait of his adversary, saying that Ms. Hill had often lost her temper and "stormed out of the room" when she hadn't gotten her way on the job.

The combination of such remarks left Judge Thomas in strong shape as yesterday dawned, according to public opinion polls, but new witnesses yesterday afternoon began rebuilding the credibility of Ms. Hill's allegations.

Three close friends -- John Carr, Susan Hoerchner and Ellen Wells -- each testified that Ms. Hill had confided in them with her complaints of sexual harassment as long as eight years ago, while she was working for Judge Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

One said she mentioned Judge Thomas by name, one said she mentioned that her boss's name was Clarence, and one said he knew who her boss was at the time Ms. Hill told him of the sexual harassment.

As for the possibility that Ms. Hill might have been motivated by politics in bringing her charges, all four panelists said that was preposterous. Ms. Hoerchner and Mr. Paul both recalled her support for past Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, the conservative judge who was eventually rejected by the Senate.

But most important is that the witnesses helped post-date Ms. Hill's allegations to a time long before Judge Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court, which helps defuse the notion that Ms. Hill might have made up her story solely to keep Judge Thomas off the court.

In the evening, Judge Thomas' side counterattacked. Some of the testimony of his four friends and former co-workers -- J. C. Alvarez, Nancy Fitch, Diane Holt and Phyllis Berry Myers -- focused on general comments of his good character. They said it was incomprehensible that he could have made the remarks attributed to him by Ms. Hill.

The images of both of the principals are likely to turn again before the hearings are over. And again. She has already told the panel she wants to come back to answer the charges made against her since she testified Friday.

If she does return, the committee has reserved the right for Judge Thomas to have the last word.

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