Washington -- IN THE blame-placing for the circus that the Clarence Thomas confirmation process became, the Senate Judiciary Committee has taken most of the heat. Its failure to pursue more thoroughly the allegations of sexual harassment against the Supreme Court nominee before law professor Anita Hill, responding to press leaks, came forward with her charges put the committee squarely on the defensive.
Although the 14 white men on the committee were apprised of her allegations before they split, 7-7, on recommending confirmation to the full Senate, the enormous publicity unleashed by her dramatic televised press conference in Oklahoma forced the committee to reconvene to investigate further. The collateral charge of insensitivity to the whole concept of sexual harassment from women's groups and others stung committee members, and indeed the whole Senate.
Also, the leaking of Hill's sworn affidavit to the news media, whose subsequent reports triggered Hill's decision to go public, brought criticism against the press and television as well as the Senate, whose members busily pointed fingers on a partisan basis. The charges of leaking in turn produced flat denials from Democrats and Republicans alike that neither they nor their staffs had anything to do with the leaks.
In all this, one major player in the drama has escaped serious criticism, yet it was a decision by him that led eventually to the whole fiasco. President Bush, in nominating a man of dubious judicial qualifications who proceeded under White House tutelage to stonewall and dissemble on his well-established ideological views, assured that an adversarial atmosphere would dominate the committee's deliberations.
It is indisputable that the president has the right to nominate whomever he chooses to serve on the court. But his decision to name a conspicuous conservative, and then orchestrate through his subordinates a confirmation strategy that sought to obscure Thomas' ideological rigidity, frustrated the legitimate efforts of probing committee members to ascertain a clear idea of how the nominee's past positions would color his future decisions on the court.
The committee must share a large degree of the blame in the first instance, not for giving short shrift to the sexual harassment allegations but for letting Thomas get away with his transparent JTC stonewalling. His ludicrous assertion that all through law school, as a civil-rights official in the Reagan administration and then as a judge he never even discussed with anyone the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision permitting abortion, let alone reached a position on it, was an insult to the intelligence of the committee.
That assertion marked Thomas either as a liar or so incredibly detached from one of the most burning political and judicial issues of his time as to be unqualified to sit on the federal appellate court on which he now serves, never mind the highest tribunal in the land.
A debate is now raging over what has gone wrong with the confirmation process, that such a circus could result as the nation has witnessed over the last weeks. Senatorial insensitivity has taken the brunt of the blame amid a distinctly anti-congressional climate in the country, fed most recently by the unrelated disclosures of check-bouncing and other abuses of perks in the House.
If ever there was an issue unsuited for clarification by televised Senate committee hearings, it was the one raised by Professor ** Hill's charges and Judge Thomas' categorical denials. With no eyewitnesses, tapes or other "smoking gun" to confirm or refute the allegations, all that was possible in the hearings were attempts at character support or, lamentably, character assassination.
The Senate committee must accept its share of the responsibility for initially kissing off the charges and then somehow having them leaked. But the president deserves his share, in nominating a man who by wide acknowledgment in his own legal and judicial community was not the best qualified individual available to serve on the Supreme Court, and who then stonewalled and dodged on his own beliefs.
Presidents, Democratic and Republican, always say they have looked for the most qualified person for the Supreme Court and then they pick someone they think will be supportive of their own views. That being the case, the Senate has the right and duty to probe a nominee's ideology -- and to get straight answers from that nominee, or reject him.