Thomas' denials taken on faith by White House No option existed were charges proved

October 16, 1991|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Despite real fear at the White House that Anita F. Hill's charges of sexual harassment might prove too powerful for Clarence Thomas to overcome in the Senate, there was apparently never any serious consideration of what President Bush should do if the charges were found to be true.

According to numerous inside accounts, Judge Thomas' initial denial of the charges to Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., was accepted on faith by President Bush and many others in the administration, largely because the charges seemed contrary to what they knew of the man.

"Did some people think about it in the dark of the night? Yes," acknowledged one senior administration official. "But a lot of the staffers had worked with him for years, and it didn't make sense to us."

Mr. Bush declared Friday morning, before he had even heard Ms. Hill's testimony, that he would not change his mind about the nomination, signaling that there would be no effort to nudge Judge Thomas into withdrawing.

But Ms. Hill's graphic and seemingly credible testimony Friday afternoon raised grave doubts among the president's advisers about whether the viewing public -- and thus its senators -- could be convinced if the judge simply denied her charges.

The turning point appeared to come Friday night when Judge Thomas launched a calculated campaign to go on the offensive -- not against Ms. Hill but against the committee, the Senate and interest groups. He appears to have succeeded in painting himself as the real victim of the drama.

It was a campaign the White House only loosely embraced.

Judge Thomas' use of the racially charged word "lynching" to describe his treatment at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committeee made some Bush aides nervous, and there was an effort to talk the nominee out of it, one senior administration official said yesterday.

But Judge Thomas' overall tactic of aiming his fire at the bank of white, middle-aged, male senators arrayed in front of him and at special-interest groups bent on his defeat dovetailed with Mr. Bush's standard good-cop, bad-cop routine on such sensitive political matters.

Throughout the long weekend of charge and countercharge before the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Bush's role was to stay out of the debate but to repeat daily a declaration of support designed to keep wavering senators from jumping ship.

On Friday morning, Mr. Bush maintained that his nominee was a "decent and honorable man who has been smeared" but who would overcome it. Later in the day, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Judge Thomas had "turned the dynamic of the thing around."

In a brief statement Monday afternoon, the president was careful to note that a strong majority of black Americans appeared to be supporting the Thomas nomination, sending an obvious message to those Democratic senators from Southern states who depend on black votes.

In the end, it was clear that those who had expected the initial outcry from women's groups to be the decisive political factor for the wavering senators underestimated the sympathy Judge Thomas would be able to arouse by his passionate protests at being pilloried.

"Somebody figured out the right thing to do politically," observed Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "Whether it was the White House or Thomas or his Senate handlers, I'm not sure. Maybe it was luck."

Mr. Fitzwater insisted last night that there was never any real strategy "except for Clarence Thomas to make his case from the heart, and that's what he did."

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