White House talks led to strategy to attack Hill

October 14, 1991|By Andrew Rosenthal | Andrew Rosenthal,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The fierce Republican counterattack on Anita F. Hill's testimony sprang from high-level White House consultations among dispirited officials who concluded as the new hearings unfolded that the only way to save Judge Clarence Thomas' nomination was to cast doubt on the professor's character and motivations.

When the hearings began Friday, the White House avoided urging the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to attack because President Bush's aides were split.

Among Bush aides who believed Judge Thomas' story, some thought the gloves should come off and some feared the political dangers of attacking a black woman's character.

There were also some aides who could not make up their minds, and a small group that believed Professor Hill, officials said yesterday.

But by Friday afternoon, as Professor Hill's damaging testimony continued, the mood at the White House sank to what an official called "a new level of depression," and some advisers feared that the nomination was doomed. The odds on a lunchtime bet between two White House aides were 5-to-1 against confirmation.

At this point, a group of Mr. Thomas' friends, led by C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, and including J. Michael Luttig, an assistant attorney general who has been confirmed as a federal judge but not yet sworn in, decided their only course was to pick apart Professor Hill's case even if this involved a direct attack on her character.

Mr. Bush approved the effort, but it was decided that he needed to stand apart from it, officials said, and the White House assembled a team of lawyers from its own counsel's office, the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to amass evidence against Professor Hill with the help of Republican Senate staff aides.

The vice chairman of the EEOC, Rosalie G. Silberman, said yesterday night that she was part of a group that helped to organize witnesses, who had worked with or for Mr. Thomas to testify in his behalf at the Senate hearings.

Recognizing Professor Hill's credibility and the impossibility of finding the unvarnished truth, the idea was simply to raise doubts about her story and her character.

Once the strategic decision to go after Professor Hill had been reached at the White House, tactics were worked out in conjunction with the two most experienced trial lawyers among the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

They led Mr. Thomas, the main witness on Saturday, through an assault on his accuser's words that escalated throughout the day.

The key points of their attack consisted of:

* Zeroing in on references to pubic hair and the adult movie star Long Dong Silver, two small points in a broad and complex story, and arguing that if the origin of these details could be disputed, then Professor Hill's whole story must have been invented.

* Pointing out that Professor Hill had given more details of her charges as the hearings progressed as a way of suggesting that she had embroidered her story, but omitting that the additional information was asked of her under cross-examination.

* Accusing her of "perjury," a charge made by Sen. Specter on Saturday afternoon on the basis of some variations in her answers Friday to questions about her contacts with Judiciary Committee investigators.

Other officials, working with Republican Senate aides, began looking for internal inconsistencies in Professor Hill's statements that were used as the basis for Sen. Specter's charge of perjury and for the assertion that she had embroidered her story as she went along.

Administration officials said yesterday that the White House's course was shaped at first by Mr. Thomas' decision to prepare his own defense without Kenneth Duberstein, the former White House chief of staff, and Frederick McClure, the White House congressional liaison, who had been advising him.

There also were political factors. One official said: "The consensus in the White House was very strongly that we had to be cautious. Some of the political advisers and media types were worried that we were going to lose the women's vote if we criticized her at all."

By Thursday evening, the official said, "It was conventional wisdom that these are just two stories that will be impossible to prove one way or another."

When Mr. Thomas began speaking Friday morning, some officials expressed alarm that he was being so harshly critical of the Senate panel.

"I don't believe that Duberstein or McClure would have advised him to go that way," another official said. "The instinct of all legislative types and lobbyists is to be respectful of the senators."

What turned the tide against inaction was the influence of powerful officials who are friends of Mr. Thomas', including Mr. Gray, Vice President Dan Quayle, and his chief of staff, William Kristol, officials said.

The White House counsel's office, including Lee Liberman, the associate counsel who supervises judicial nominations, was central to the resulting counter-offensive, as was Mr. Luttig, officials said.

One official summed up the White House strategy, saying, "Given the fact that the president's own staff couldn't agree on who was winning and some couldn't even agree on who was telling the truth, it was obvious there was only one way to go -- attack Anita Hill's character and motivations."

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