For the two principal figures, pivotal day has finally arrived Whatever the verdict, Hill raised hidden issue

October 15, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- It was July 1, and Anita Hill's telephone was ringing in Norman, Okla.

Longtime friend Susan Hoerchner was on the line, calling from California to see if she'd heard the news. Ms. Hill's old boss, Clarence Thomas, had just been nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

She'd heard it, all right. "She said her stomach turned," Ms. Hoerchner recalled. "I asked her if she was going to say anything, what she was going to do." Ms. Hill replied vaguely, indicating she'd probably do nothing, even though she'd told Ms. Hoerchner a decade earlier that Mr. Thomas had repeatedly sexually harassed her on the job.

But fate wouldn't take no for an answer and, by whatever means, Ms. Hill's secret trickled to the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She reluctantly agreed to cooperate with the committee in private.

Then, with Mr. Thomas poised for confirmation, the fragile dam of Capitol Hill secrecy burst. Having agreed only to stick her toe in the water, Ms. Hill was suddenly neck-deep and heading for the falls, plunging toward a public spectacle that would turn her and Mr. Thomas inside-out before a nationwide television audience.

Today Ms. Hill stands ready for judgment. If the Senate confirms Mr. Thomas, it will be proclaiming her a liar -- and polls indicate that the majority of the public has already done so.

But history will also judge Ms. Hill, and on this count she seems destined for kinder treatment as the woman who -- honest or not -- almost single-handedly pushed the issue of sexual harassment out of the shadows and into the light of public debate.

"I think she has made an enormous contribution to this country on many fronts," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "History will look at her as the personification of many victims of sexual harassment in this country who are powerless to stop their harasser and vindicate their legal rights."

Ms. Hill seemed to take solace from this possibility yesterday. Smiling and looking relaxed back home in Oklahoma yesterday after more than three days of hearings, she said during a brief announcement that she hoped that other women in similar positions would have the strength to come forward with their stories, no matter how raw the consequences.

She had known from the start that the hearings would be difficult, and no one along the way offered her reason to believe otherwise.

For starters, there was simply the matter of embarrassing herself before the world. Even if, as her detractors say, she dreamed up the charges out of some misguided fantasy, she still had to describe them in lurid detail while her elderly parents sat behind her and a bank of TV cameras stood before her.

"Telling the world is the most difficult experience of my life," she said at the time. And as the day wore on, she found that explaining her story to skeptical senators was even tougher. "It seemed that every 15 minutes I had to respond to a new theory as to why I had made the hard decision to break my silence," she said.

Watching her reputation being torn down and rebuilt during the following two days after she left the hearing room wasn't any easier. Depending on who was testifying, her image gyrated wildly -- from prim, honest Oklahoma farm girl to unstable, vindictive, easily-manipulated liar. Or, even worse: She was, according to the pro-Thomas theory that predominated toward the end, the woman who believed she was telling the truth but had sadly deluded herself for more than a decade, a virtual schizophrenic.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, led the first installment of the tearing down, suggesting that she drew the details of her account partly out of a novel and a past court case, with the rest coming from thin air.

On Sunday, four of her friends counterattacked, testifying that she'd told them of the same allegations many years ago, though in general terms, long before she could have been motivated to )) sabotage Mr. Thomas' nomination.

But the nadir seemed to come Sunday night. With the committee tiring and the clock marching toward midnight, two panels of witnesses appearing on Mr. Thomas' behalf supplied a spirited one-two punch, first by striking at her professional behavior, then by attacking her personal dealings with men.

Co-worker J. C. Alvarez said that Ms. Hill's testimony "blew my mind" because, "It was like schizophrenia. . . . On Friday she

played the role of a meek, innocent, shy Baptist girl from the South who was the victim of this big, bad man."

But actually, Ms. Alvarez said, "She was opinionated, she was arrogant, she was a relentless debater. And she was the kind of woman who always made you feel that she was not going to be messed with. . . . She was aloof, she always acted as if she was a little bit superior to everyone, a little holier than thou. . . . The Anita I knew before was nobody's victim."

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