Women fighting nominee found they lost image war Thomas, not Hill, seemed the victim

October 16, 1991|By Maureen Dowd | Maureen Dowd,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- After the vote, the gloomy feminist contingent on Capitol Hill concluded that Clarence Thomas triumphed because he came across as more of a victim than Anita F. Hill did.

Many senators told disappointed lobbyists for the coalition of civil rights groups and women's groups opposing Judge Thomas that it was not so much Ms. Hill's credibility that determined the outcome as a range of other issues. Everyone knew what "other issues" meant.

While the Oklahoma Law School professor was poised and likable, these senators confided, she has seemed too controlled and unemotional to really tug at the heartstrings of the heartland, especially when compared to Judge Thomas' hot and emotional television appearances in which he cast himself as a martyr of the process and of racial discrimination. He was the one with tears in his eyes as he faced the Senate Judiciary Committee, after all.

Many senators had also found Ms. Hill an unsympathetic figure because, even if her story was true, she seemed too calculating and careerist in staying with Judge Thomas at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rather than "storming out in a huff," as one lobbyist explained it. Her career had not been hurt by Judge Thomas, they argued.

"The senators felt that it was not honorable or virtuous that she was getting something out of the relationship and looking the other way on any harassment that might have been going on," said one lobbyist for a women's group who asked to remain anonymous. "She was not a heroine or a martyr."

Some senators privately told reporters that, even if the charges were true, it was impossible to calculate if there was, as one sympathetic senator on the Judiciary Committee put it, "a missing piece, some elements in her that we don't really know."

Had there been more of a social relationship between the two than Ms. Hill and Judge Thomas had admitted to? And even if her assertions were true, they wondered, if the harassment had not been serious enough for her to leave immediately, was it serious enough to outweigh all the other aspects about the nominee that they regarded as positive and to outweigh the ordeal he had gone through this week by having such a last-minute accusation from long ago nearly derail his nomination?

"There was some feeling among the senators," one frustrated lobbyist for a women's group said, requesting that her name not be used, "that even if it was true, is talking dirty all that bad, especially when it might have been an isolated incident in his life at a time after his divorce?"

Clearly, the senators felt that some flowery oratory on the issue of sexual harassment would play well with the folks at home in the hours of floor debate before they confirmed Judge Thomas.

Republican after Republican stood up to urge that America pay more attention to the problem and to say that all American women should now understand the need to come forward in a timely way, even as the senators announced that they had not believed Ms. Hill's story.

Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini, the only Democrat on the Judiciary Committee who helped the Republicans discredit Ms. Hill, said his mother had recently confided an incident of sexual harassment to him. Other senators talked about calls and conversations they had had with women.

Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who voted to confirm, said the hearing "underscored the need for the men of this country to do some serious soul-searching about how they treat their female colleagues in this country," and he urged victims of sexual harassment to come forward.

Democratic Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, who voted against Judge Thomas as he had planned to do before last week, said that "the revolution in thought about relationships between men and women is shaking the Senate and the country."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., repeated his assertion that Ms. Hill had perjured herself, even though the Democrats cried, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said, "Shame," and said that Mr. Specter had fastened on a minor inconsistency.

"The treatment of Anita Hill is what every woman fears who thinks of lifting the veil and revealing her sexual harassment," Mr. Kennedy said on the floor. "Here in the Senate, and in the nation, we need to establish a different, better, higher standard."

"That is what is so scandalous about this," said Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, during a break from the floor debate. "All these senators getting up and saying that American women should come in and say they're harassed. Who would want to do it after seeing how Anita Hill was smeared? There is the stench of hypocrisy in that chamber."

Mr. Leahy and other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee were sounding defensive, sensitive to the criticism that they had allowed ground rules for the hearing that had favored Judge Thomas and that they had, as civil rights lawyer Joseph Rauh put it, "conducted the poorest job of cross-examination I've seen in my 56 years in the law."

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