Dim chances of healing after the Thomas confirmation fight On Politics Today

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

October 17, 1991|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

Washington -- JUDGE Clarence Thomas' post-confirmation declaration "that this is a time for healing" is not likely to get much response from the Democratic majority in the Senate that heard him pillory the Senate Judiciary Committee for conducting "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

The bitterness engendered by the week-long cat fight over Thomas' suitability for the Supreme Court promises to die slowly. It will doubtless contribute to continued rejection of legislation proposed by President Bush, stalemate resulting from more presidential vetoes and another negative campaign year.

The tactics employed by the White House to combat sexual harassment allegations against Thomas will only increase the hostility toward Bush that many Democratic senators already feel. Thomas' categorical denial of the charges, and then his contemptuous refusal to watch the testimony of his accuser while supportive Republican senators methodically sought to discredit her with unsubstantiated implications of mental instability, will not soon be forgotten. And the continued willingness to use race as an issue, first demonstrated so clearly in the "Willie Horton" excesses of the Bush 1988 campaign, does not augur well for a kinder, gentler 1992 campaign.

On the other side of the Senate aisle, Republicans will press the contention that a Democratic Senate staffer engineered the whole fiasco by leaking an affidavit containing Professor Anita Hill's allegations to the news media, in a concerted effort to ambush Thomas at the 11th hour. Taken together, the events of the last week will make highly unlikely the healing of which a suddenly pacified Thomas spoke after the confirmation vote.

Nor is President Bush's promise to give the Senate advice on how to conduct the confirmation process in the future going to sit well among the Democrats who control that august but shaken body. "I think when it's over I owe the American people my suggestions as to how to improve the process," quoth the president, "and I will do my level best."

But Democrats are sure to tell him to clean up his own act first. Predictably, they will advise him to vow on any future appointment to eschew the kind of blatantly political choice he made in selecting a black man with minimal judicial experience, while professing race was not a factor in filling the seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall. And they will tell him to mean it when he claims he is selecting the "best qualified" individual he can find.

Still, the Democratic majority is clearly on the defensive as a result of the belated airing of Hill's charges before a spellbound national television audience.

A thorough investigation of those charges, and interrogations in private, might not have avoided public hearings but probably could have reduced their decibel level. Hearings that at first appeared to threaten Thomas' confirmation ended up providing the White House with a beneficial forum for its assault on Hill's credibility and character.

One glaring revelation from the episode is the disarray of the Democratic leadership. With a 14-vote majority in the Senate, it could not hold the line against a deft White House strategy of using race to pressure Southern Democrats dependent on black votes for re-election to stick with Thomas. The fact that Hill also is black did not prevent Thomas from effectively alleging that black stereotypes about sexual prowess and conduct were being used against him, and that if one dared to be different "you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree."

The failure of the Democratic leadership to prevent erosion of its Senate strength in the Thomas confirmation contributes to the view that the party can't decide what it stands for. That perception remains the centerpiece of the party's trouble as it heads into a presidential election campaign with a group of lesser-known candidates bent on using the primaries to establish a clearer party identity.

As leaders of a party that has prided itself on being the champion of civil rights for minorities, the Democrats should have been able to join ranks to defeat the nomination of a man whose civil-rights record is so widely deplored by virtually all major black organizations. Instead, they are left to lick the wounds they sustained at the hands of a Republican White House well-experienced in playing hardball, racial politics -- and not the least reluctant to do so.

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