Don't blame the 'process'

J. Herbert Altschull

October 21, 1991|By J. Herbert Altschull

The president . . . by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for and which shall be established by law; but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers as they think proper in the president alone, in the courts of law or in the heads of departments.

The Constitution, Article II, Section 2

NOTHING about the Clarence Thomas affair has disturbed me as much as the criticism of the confirmation "process." To attack the process is the easy way out; it is hypocritical and it is cowardly.

There is nothing wrong with the process. There is a great deal wrong with the people who use and manipulate the process to their own ends. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault lies not in our process but in ourselves.

Nearly everyone has attacked the process: senators, journalists, many in the television audience, Clarence Thomas himself. It is a vague word, and it no doubt has different meanings to the different people who use it.

Let's be clear about it. The process is required by the Constitution. The president nominates a justice to the Supreme Court, and the Senate approves or disapproves the nomination. That's it. The rules for carrying out the process are properly made by the president and the Senate.

Why do I say that to attack the process is to dodge the tough choice? Isn't it a fact that members of the Judiciary Committee said again and again that Thomas and Anita Hill, his accuser, were credible witnesses? Blaming the process was a neat way to avoid deciding between the two.

The assault on Hill was an assault by innuendo. Blaming the process was an indirect way of blaming Hill. Were not many of the witnesses who testified on behalf of Thomas especially critical of the process? They didn't want to attack Hill directly.

So if we can't escape by blaming the process, where can we lay the blame?

Some Republican senators sought to lay the blame on some vague irrationality on the part of Hill, or on deception by Democratic committee staffers. Others went cautiously beyond that: Sen. Arlen Specter even alleged perjury, a safe allegation given Specter's congressional immunity. Some blamed the press. Some blamed the "leak."

Democratic senators were not much more logical. They didn't seem to blame anybody. Most of them sided with Hill, but they didn't challenge Thomas. Some among them also blamed that (( nebulous villain, the process.

To his credit, the committee chairman, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, defended the process. But his was a voice in the wilderness.

The plain and simple fact is that the process, which has been in existence since the Constitution went into force two centuries ago, was misused. And the chief misuser was President Bush. He did not, as the Constitution required, seek the advice of the Senate. He just asked the members to consent.

And he lied when he announced the selection of Thomas. He said that race had nothing to do with the nomination, that Thomas was simply the best man in the country for the job. Each of those statements is false on its face. Bush and his associates then decided that it was necessary, if Thomas were to be confirmed, to launch an all-out public relations campaign on his behalf. And this was done.

So the process was contaminated from the outset. It was further damaged when Thomas refused to tell the committee very much about his beliefs. He said he had never even discussed Roe vs. vTC Wade and, indeed, denied the validity of a number of statements he had made in the past.

After Hill's story came to light and she appeared as a witness at the committee hearings, Thomas continued to maintain his silence on anything that mattered. He denied her story and he attacked the process. That's all. Indeed, he even portrayed himself, astonishingly, as a victim of racial prejudice. By a black woman?

In all these goings-on, we saw contempt for the American people, and we saw the principles of democracy sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Republican senators, such as Specter, Orrin Hatch and Alan Simpson, disgraced themselves by their bullying tactics. Democratic senators, such as Edward Kennedy, Howard Metzenbaum and Paul Simon, emerged as shaky defenders of fundamental principles.

Blame the process? No, blame the president. And blame viciousness and cowardice on the part of far too many members of the Senate. And blame Clarence Thomas. But don't blame Anita Hill. She said what she believed she had to say, with dignity and without attacking the process.

J. Herbert Altschull teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

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