Build-up, Letdown


October 16, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A week ago, millions of women hoped that at last the subject of sexual harassment was being taken seriously in Washington. Since then, the nation has seen why so many people have looked the other way for so long.

When the Senate agreed to air Anita Hill's allegations against Clarence Thomas, women everywhere thought the hearings might encourage victims in the future to come forth, confident of fair treatment.

Instead, men, women and children across America have been transfixed by a sordid drama that demonstrated again how such charges are nearly impossible to prove -- or disprove. Those too young to understand it before have learned what can happen to the woman who dares speak up when it is her word against his.

Judge Thomas, the accused, was not tried by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Professor Hill, the accuser, was. That turnabout was not unusual; the same thing happens every day to others who try to prove harassment or even rape in the courts of the land.

At the beginning, Chairman Joe Biden said the hearing was not called to consider the subject of sexual harassment in general, or to examine either principal's private life outside the specific allegations involved. At the end of three days' testimony, cross-examination and outrageous posturing, those limits were long ignored.

Almost all the other senators for whom the show was staged heard exactly what they wanted to hear, and drew the political conclusion they had drawn before they ever heard of Ms. Hill. The savvier committee members understood that the handful of swing votes would be affected more by public-opinion polls than what was proved factually in the hearing.

Thus they competed for the television audience -- and by luck or skill, the Republicans got all the breaks in that contest.

Ms. Hill's own remarkably composed and credible appearance came Friday, before most of the country had heard about the salacious details and rushed to tune in. Saturday, leaves went unraked and high-school games ignored while the nation heard Mr. Thomas' righteous denials and saw his committee backers go to work on Ms. Hill.

Sunday, the four friends whom Ms. Hill told about the harassment years ago -- by far the most relevant supporting witnesses on either side -- had to compete with pro football. After they testified, TV newspeople were still quoting opinion polls taken the night before, reflecting positive response to Mr. Thomas' appearance but seeming to judge the pro-Hill witnesses as well.

Sunday evening, past midnight, a parade of character witnesses for Judge Thomas went on for hour after hour, most of them treated as respectfully as if they actually had something pertinent to say. Monday, on the Columbus holiday, those late-night exchanges were rebroadcast for fans who had not lasted to the bitter end.

When Senator Biden finally gaveled the hearing to a close at 2 a.m. Monday, Ted Kennedy, Strom Thurmond and others on the panel congratulated him on his handling of the proceedings, and indeed, I doubt that anyone could have done better.

But Mr. Biden went so far to avoid seeming unfair that he allowed the Thomas side to demolish any semblance of fairness. He surely was tempted to crack Orrin Hatch between the eyes when the Utahan kept shouting down the chair in phony anger. He let Alan Simpson and Arlen Specter get away with unfounded scurrilities against Ms. Hill that they would never utter outside the legally protected halls of Congress.

I'm tempted to believe Chairman Biden let the most absurd performance of all go on as long as it did just because it was so absurd. John Doggett said Ms. Hill once told him at a party that he shouldn't lead women on and let them down. Mr. Doggett, after offering a pretentious autobiography that sounded like he was nominating himself for president, fantasized that his brief exchange with Ms. Hill proved she was a spurned woman who imagined sexual encounters with men.

Yet, absurd as it was, his testimony precisely illustrated why sexual harassment is such a dangerous charge not merely for the accused but for the accuser. It and the entire Senate hearing showed why not one in a hundred of those who have endured sexual harassment on the job have dared bring formal charges against the offender.

Those who expected the hearing to make last night's Senate vote a show of hands on sexual harassment can take some consolation from the fact that most minds were made up weeks ago.

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