Desert Storm: How the Thomas Saga Plays in Saudi Arabia

TRB

October 24, 1991|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Time: the second week in October.

Scene: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The house of a very old, very wise man. Or at least he is certainly very old and we have been told that he is very wise. We must take it on faith, since he speaks no English, but he certainly looks the part: gaunt, bearded, dressed in the traditional thobe. He sits in a circle of sons and acolytes, plus a small group of visiting Americans. Tiny cups of Arabic coffee are served, followed by tiny glasses of sweetened tea, followed by water and fruit juice, followed by an elaborate meal.

The old man speaks. The Americans lean forward. An aide translates:

He says, ''This Anita Hill. Do you think she's telling the truth?''

I missed the whole thing. When I left America Oct. 7, Clarence Thomas was due to be confirmed easily the next day. Eight days later, the day he was actually confirmed, I returned to a country transformed by an experience I can never fully share. An entire cast of characters had been added to the nation's stock of cultural references. Some had comic names like Long Dong Silver and John Doggett III. Who are these people? One, I gather, is noteworthy for the extraordinary length of his resume.

Unlike visiting Americans, many of the Saudis we talked to were able to follow the entire proceedings via their home satellite dishes. ''I was up until 5 a.m., translating for my wife,'' yawned one prince. The predominant Saudi (male) reaction was twofold. First, incredulity at the fuss. In the words of a businessman: ''What sort of successful man doesn't do this sort of thing?'' Second, vindication of the Saudi way of life. If you don't want hanky-panky between men and women, they reasoned gleefully, keep the sexes segregated as we do.

This reaction, although sexist, is at least sincere and authentic. That is in contrast to the reaction to the affair among conservatives in our country.

Talking with people who did sit through the whole drama, I have been struck that Anita Hill's supporters tend to believe, perhaps tendentiously, that their flag bearer was telling the whole truth, whereas Clarence Thomas' supporters tend to believe something more complicated: that the truth lies somewhere in between their two stories, or in some third scenario.

Almost every plausible scenario except Anita Hill's own would seriously mitigate, if not wipe out, the charge of sexual harassment. Many Thomas supporters may agree privately with my Saudi friends that even Ms. Hill's own scenario does not describe a hanging offense. But as Thomas supporters weave )) their exculpatory scenarios, they seem remarkably indifferent to fTC the fact that they are indicting their own man for perjury. Two people may have lied, but only one was up for the Supreme Court. Of course perjury ain't what it used to be. These same people didn't care that he claimed under oath never to have discussed Roe v. Wade.

A second category of disingenuousness among Thomas supporters concerns the so-called ''process.'' Even those who choose to believe Clarence Thomas' whole story can't seriously maintain that the charges against him were exposed as transparently false and absurd. So what is all this talk of Republicans making the hearings part of their general indictment of an out-of-control Congress? No doubt they will do so. But where's the logic?

President Bush has been slippery on this point. He has said the charges were ''unfounded'' and not worth pursuing. He has also said they should have been pursued in closed sessions, while at the same time he has lambasted ''women activist feminist groups'' for pursuing them at all. Clearly the charges were investigated badly, though Judge Thomas' opponents have more legitimate grounds for complaint than his supporters. But the implied position of those who rant about the leak and the hearings is that the charges should have been disregarded.

Ditto the general hand-wringing about scandal-mongering, invasion of privacy, the search for personal dirt replacing weightier considerations, etc. Unless you think Anita Hill's charges were irrelevant even if true, the Clarence Thomas case does not illuminate such fine public-spirited concerns.

Indeed, coming from Saudi Arabia, I was struck by the lack of alarm about nominee Thomas' moral and spiritual condition on the part of America's own social conservatives.

When Judge Thomas refused to answer questions on his possible interest in pornographic films, no Republican senator rose to insist. When Newsweek reported that a prominent newspaper is sitting on a list of X-rated movies rented by Judge Thomas, Gary Bauer did not demand that the list be released.

Mr. Bauer, as head of the domestic policy council, was the social-issues right's inside man in the Reagan White House. Now he runs something called the Family Research Council, which crusades against homosexuals, pornography, etc. He also was head of the Citizens Committee to Confirm Clarence Thomas.

As a liberal, it does not bother me if a Supreme Court justice is an aficionado of pornographic movies. But why does it not bother Gary Bauer?

TRB wrote this commentary for The New Republic.

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