Suggest and destroy

Russell Baker

October 15, 1991|By Russell Baker

BEING A LAWYER, Anita Hill must have known from the start that the White House would have to destroy her reputation in order to save Judge Thomas'. This is the way of the lawyer with those who take such matters into court.

It's why only the most hot-headed accusers refuse to cool down and take their grievances to the psychiatrist, chaplain or bartender instead of the courtroom. Prosecuting the victim is the legal tradition.

With a claim that she had been a victim of sexual harassment by the judge, Professor Hill a professor of law, after all, presumably teaching these home truths to the young surely knew what she was in for. So to believe she was a deliberate, coldly conniving liar, you had to believe she had a martyr's appetite for agony.

Since this seemed unlikely to wash with the jury, which in this case was the TV audience, other explanations for her behavior had to be suggested. "Suggested" is the key word. She had to be destroyed by suggestion. Lacking evidence that Professor Hill was driven by pure malice, Thomas' senator-lawyers could only plant the jury's mind with damaging speculations about her.

The burden of these was that she might be mentally or emotionally disturbed: not a female Iago trying to destroy good Judge Thomas for pure malice, but a woman driven to horrible acts by poisonous imbalances of hormones and mental juices. The suggestion was that she was more to be pitied than despised but, despised or pitied, certainly not to be believed.

And so, during Sunday's hearings the words "delusionary" and "schizophrenic" were drawn from witnesses assembled by the Thomas defense team. We were repeatedly invited to speculate that Professor Hill had been half-maddened by some romantic feeling for Thomas, for which no evidence could be submitted.

The task of cutting up Professor Hill fell to Senators Hatch, Specter and Simpson. It could not have been the happiest of assignments, for there is still a vestige of antique sentiment in the American psyche that says a gentleman should treat a woman like a lady. Still, millions paid box-office millions not long ago to applaud when mad Glenn Close was stabbed and drowned, then stabbed and drowned some more in "Fatal Attraction," a movie in which a spurned woman goes too far to get revenge.

Specter was the chilly courtroom professional of the trio, always ready to strike, a deadly threat to anyone opposing his client. If Specter was Perry Mason, Hatch was sputtering, always outraged Hamilton Burger. What a fiery show of disgust he gave at the news that Professor Hill had taken and passed a lie-detector test. What good were lie-detector tests! No court accepted them. They were easily fixed. "Exactly what a two-bit ++ slick lawyer would do," he said.

Simpson, who has lately been playing Savonarola to America's immoral media, applied a sharp tongue to dispose of the dishonest, biased, erroneous stuff being issued by everybody not on Thomas' side.

Supplementing these three was Senator Danforth, who sat beside Thomas scowling angrily throughout and appeared on PBS television during one recess looking as though he had just eaten a keg of nails and might chew up Nina Totenberg and Paul Duke for dessert if they asked any sassy questions.

If after so much showy attack politics by the Republicans one tends to believe Professor Hill, what is to be said in Thomas' defense? The answer lies in Robert Penn Warren's great novel, "All the King's Men." When its protagonist, Jack Burden, is ordered by corrupt Willie Stark to get "something" on an "Upright Judge," Burden replies that there can't possibly be "something" on such an honorable man.

"There is always something," Willie replies. "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."

Willie Stark proves to be right. There is "something" on the "Upright Judge," and tragedy results. If it's Anita Hill who is telling the truth, upright Judge Thomas will not have been "lynched," as he insists, but merely revealed as another universal and pitiable human, nature-doomed as we all are to have "something" back there in the record.

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