Senate confirms Thomas, 52-48 Bitter battle over charges by Hill changes few minds

October 16, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A brutal and, at times, surreal episode in the annals of American politics reached its bitter conclusion yesterday when a deeply divided Senate voted 52-48 to seat Judge Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court.

Though lawmakers professed continuing uncertainty about sexual-harassment charges brought by Anita F. Hill, the tally suggested that the Oklahoma law professor's charges had changed few minds and that an extraordinary, three-day public inquiry by the Senate Judiciary Committee had mostly reinforced previously held opinions.

Indeed, throughout the more than seven hours of emotional debate, Judge Thomas' opponents reiterated their concern over the nominee's comparative youth, legal credentials and aggressively conservative judicial philosophy. "After all is said and done, after all the debate, after all that happened this weekend," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., "the ++ pool [of votes] we had last week is pretty much intact."

The Senate's action was a triumph for Republicans in the Senate and the White House, who coordinated a multilayered campaign to bolster Judge Thomas and discredit Ms. Hill. The strategy rescued a nomination that appeared doomed Friday to many officials on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Yet it was Judge Thomas whom President Bush praised yesterday. "You did a fine job. You were a wonderful inspiration, and you have the overwhelming support of the American people," the president said in a telephone call to the justice-designate just after the vote.

"You have a lifetime of service to your country ahead. Well done."

Judge Thomas made a brief appearance outside his Alexandria, Va., home last night. Standing with his wife, Virginia, under an umbrella in the rain, he urged that the confirmation battle be put in the past so healing can begin.

"No matter how difficult or painful, this is a time for healing in our country," Judge Thomas said. "We have to put these things behind us. We have to go forward. We have to look for ways to solve problems."

For her part, Ms. Hill would not comment directly on a vote that became, in effect, a referendum on her veracity.

"The issue of sexual harassment is now part of a dialogue," Ms. Hill said last night in Norman, Okla. "And that's important. What I hope is that none of this will deter others from coming forward. This is an important issue, and the dialogue should not stop here."

Of 13 Democrats who had pledged their support before the furor over Ms. Hill's allegations, only three -- Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Richard H. Bryan and Harry Reid of Nevada -- reversed themselves and voted against confirmation.

Eleven of the chamber's 57 Democrats and 41 of 43 Republicans voted to elevate the 43-year-old Judge Thomas to the high court, the 106th person and the second black to be confirmed as a justice. Both of Maryland's senators, Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, opposed the nomination.

Less certain was the influence of recent events on the handful of Democratic senators who had not announced a position. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said he had written a speech announcing his support for the judge only to discard it after watching the nominee's emotional and explosive testimony Saturday, in which accused the Senate of staging a "high-tech lynching."

"He indicted the whole committee, and he indicted the Senate, and he indicted the process," Mr. Byrd said. "In my judgment, that was an attempt to shift the ground . . . to a matter involving race, and I frankly was offended by his injection of racism into these hearings."

Few others in the all-white Senate were heard to condemn the judge over that issue. Many of the judge's opponents, however, shared a quiet resentment over a tactic they think was intended to divert attention from Ms. Hill's accusations and place the Senate itself on the defensive.

"On Friday night, Clarence Thomas showed his racial pain and his racial anger for the first time in the confirmation process. It was probably a truer emotion than all the intellectualizing, dodging and denying that was part of earlier appearances before the committee," said Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J. "Yet he failed to focus his anger. He was right to be outraged by the leak . . . but it was Anita Hill, not the U.S. Senate, who made the charges."

As much as Judge Thomas' opponents curbed their criticism of his racial comments, his supporters stepped lightly around the issue of sexual harassment, mindful of the fact that the nearly all-male Senate does not enjoy a reputation for feminist enlightenment. Only two of the Senate's 100 members are women, and none is black.

"This is not a vote on the issue of sexual harassment or what to do about sexual harassment," said Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., who is widely regarded as Judge Thomas' mentor. "But the way to fix the problem of sexual harassment is not to sacrifice up Clarence Thomas."

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