By last act, actors were ready for curtain Five-day drama had taken its toll on emotions and egos

October 16, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In the end, the votes that put Clarence Thomas on the highest court in the land came the old-fashioned way -- one by one, with a subdued procession of ayes and noes in a room filled with tired, silent people.

It was a low-tech ending to a process scorned as a "high-tech lynching" by the man who emerged as its winner. And, even though the moment had the drama that would be expected as the votes built toward a majority, the greater emotion evident was uneasy relief, the kind sensed in a home where a long, bitter quarrel has just spent itself without resolution.

In the minutes leading up to the vote, the drawn faces of some senators hinted at chafed feelings and bruised egos, and many assumed varying postures of repose as they filed into the chamber and sat down for the day's final roll call.

Some slumped deep into their chairs. Many others propped elbows on desks and rested their chins in their hands, and some leaned back in relaxation.

Several, including Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, who had helped lead the Judiciary Committee's assault on the credibility of Judge Thomas' accuser, Anita F. Hill, walked over to shake the hand of John C. Danforth, R-Mo., the man who gave Judge Thomas his first Washington job and who had sat just behind the nominee's right shoulder throughout his nearly eight hours of testimony over the weekend.

Others, in turn, shook the hand of Mr. Hatch, who had helped deflect Ms. Hill's charges of sexual harassment by portraying her as a well-meaning, articulate woman who had nonetheless dreamed up every ugly action she had ascribed to Judge Thomas.

But, if anything, tension had been greater earlier in the day, as senators who hadn't declared their intentions announced their support for the judge, snuffing the final hopes of the nominee's opponents.

Here and there in Senate hallways, lobbyists flagged down senators as they shuttled between their offices and the Senate floor.

Nancy Sherman, a Georgetown University philosophy professor, carried a briefcase stuffed with petitions and press releases touting the views of her 6-day-old organization, the Ad Hoc Committee for Public Education on Sexual Harassment. She said she was tracking down "swing votes."

"I believe that they know Clarence Thomas is lying," she said. "He's being put forth to the Supreme Court with many doubts that he's telling the truth. I don't think women will forget."

She then bustled off down the hall, toward the office of Sen. Alan J. Dixon, D-Ill. But Mr. Dixon had declared his support for Judge Thomas within the last hour.

In Mr. Dixon's office, two staffers were doing nothing but answering one telephone call after another.

"It's running about 50-50," said Steve Rodrick, the senator's press secretary. "We're handling as many calls as we can take." For the day, the tally was approaching 2,000 calls by day's end. An average day might bring in 200.

There was also action out on the sidewalks. Across the street from the Capitol, on the steps of the Russell Senate Office Building, where the Hill-Thomas hearings had been held, about 20 black men and women stood during the lunch hour waving signs and singing in support of Judge Thomas.

"Judge Thomas, God is on your side," they sang. A man handed out fliers implicating the Senate in the "lynching" of the nominee.

Between verses, the Senate debate could be heard on a nearby radio. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., was speaking in opposition to Judge Thomas, railing against the "smear" of Ms. Hill.

But just across the street on the edge of the Capitol grounds was an irate answer to Mr. Kennedy. A middle-aged man held aloft two hand-painted signs bearing the message, starting on one and finishing on the other: "Senator Chappy Quiddick . . . You're All Wet!"

By the time the vote rolled around, a pro-Thomas majority had been fully accounted for, and opponents spoke in tones of resignation. The culmination of five dramatic days had been reduced to a formality.

But that didn't prevent a crowd from filling the gallery. Nor did it keep an anti-Thomas crowd of several hundred, mostly women, from filling the steps outside the main entrance to the Capitol. Around the edges of the lawn, other crowds formed, with radios playing here and there, and television crews by the dozens methodically set up equipment behind them.

Then, as the senators' names were called, a few glimmers of emotion peeped through. Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski pronounced her "no" with a sharp authority, as if silencing a yapping dog. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., expressed his dissent as if scolding a child: "Nooo-o." Others spoke so softly as to be barely audible.

But, in the end, the result was as expected. Then Vice President Dan Quayle proclaimed Judge Thomas confirmed and the gallery applauded and whistled.

Afterward, as in the case of almost every contest that has drawn the attention of millions, the spectators in the gallery rose from their seats with a murmur, picking up purses and jackets to head for the exits.

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