Post-Thomas Stress

ELLEN GOODMAN

November 05, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- And now as we make our daily rounds, we pause for a moment to check the pulse of public life for signs of Post-Thomas Stress Syndrome.

Has the sexual shock that streaked through the body politic during the Thomas hearings worn off? Or are the aftereffects likely to continue?

For a proper diagnosis, we put on our best bedside manner and approach the Congress first, where we find symptom one: Bi-Partisan All-Male Angst. This condition, a nervous tic in the presence of women voters, is apparent in both Republicans and Democrats, though Democrats are more likely to replay scenes of sheer incompetence in their heads and on their VCRs.

Angst is what produced those early compulsive declarations about the evils of sexual harassment. After Angst, came Apologies.

Ted ''Lockjaw'' Kennedy apologized for saying too little at the Senate hearings and promised to mend the personal ways that publicly gagged him. Alan ''Pit Bull'' Simpson apologized for saying too much and promised a personality transplant. Arlen ''PA. Law'' Specter, alas, is still in Befuddlement -- an earlier stage -- but coming along.

Now we have Reparations. The most evident congressional signs of Post-Thomas Stress Syndrome (PTSS) are in legislation.

The sudden support for the Civil Rights Bill and its passage in the Senate was one happy side effect. The Senate's equally sudden decision that it should live with the civil rights laws of the land is another. The senators voted to allow their very own employees to sue them for things like, uh, sexual harassment.

But let us move on. To truly check the status of this syndrome, we must take to the streets, offices and homes where women with PTSS survive. By now they have been through Disbelief, Denial and Outrage. The image of Anita versus the Boys, however, remains vivid.

There is, of course, mixed medical opinion on whether anger will turn to apathy or action. Spin doctors of the Republican Party insist that real women don't vote along gender lines. Spin doctors of the Democratic Party insist they can take women for granted.

Indeed, nobody knows for sure whether women will go on choosing the lesser of evils at the ballot box, or will pick their own candidates. But on our routine exams, we pick up the hopeful signs. Especially for women in politics.

Sign One: Energy. Suddenly the groups that work for female candidates are getting those wonderful queries about 1992 that begin: ''What Can I Do?''

As Jane Danowitz of the Women's Campaign Fund says, ''It always takes a calamity to make things happen. The women we're hearing from are mainstream folks who aren't generally political and might not call themselves feminists.'' They are people talking about gender, about changing the faces in office.

Sign Two: Money. Anita Hill may turn out to be the biggest fund-raiser of 1992. PTSS is working for the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC). They used it in a national ad that featured a drawing of 14 women senators facing one lone Clarence Thomas. The tag line was ''What If . . . ''

PTSS is also working for senatorial candidates like Liz Holtzman and Barbara Boxer who are running in New York and California. It may even work against some men, especially those hapless Democrats who provided Judge Thomas' margin of victory. As Ellen Malcolm who raises funds for Democrat women through EMILY's List says, ''There may be a lot of women who gave money to these guys forever and ever, just sitting it out.''

Sign Three: Running. Ever heard of Janet Napolitano? Meet the PCTC, a Post-Clarence Thomas Candidate.

In the past few weeks, pockets of women with Energy and maybe Money have organized to get someone Running against the male incumbent. In Arizona, Ms. Napolitano, one of Anita Hill's attorneys, is considering running against Republican Sen. John McCain, a Thomas supporter.

None of these signs proves the staying power of the syndrome. As Harriet Woods, the head of the NWPC says, ''Women have been as politically homeless as everyone else. But that passion didn't appear out of nowhere. If we can get women candidates who remind women of the price we pay for not having our life experience represented, if we can remind them of their disgust and anger, we'll see some change.''

So, a temporary diagnosis is in order. As we finish today's checkup, Post-Thomas Stress Syndrome looks awfully good for the system. The political system.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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