A game in which everyone fumbled

Monday Book Review

July 27, 1992|By Katy J. Harriger

CAPITOL GAMES: CLARENCE THOMAS, ANITA HILL, AND THE STORY OF A SUPREME COURT NOMINATION. By Timothy M. Phelps and Helen Winternitz. Hyperion. 433 pages. $24.95.

LIKE many Americans, I spent the second weekend of October last year glued to my television set and the lurid spectacle of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings.

What I saw angered and sickened me. Reading "Capitol Games," the new book about the Thomas nomination by reporters Timothy Phelps and Helen Winternitz, made me angry all over again. This book provides a behind-the-scenes view of the game saw played out that fall weekend, and what went on behind the scenes is not any more attractive than what we saw on the screen.

Much of the story told in "Capitol Games" is a rehash of what those of us watching saw and heard. There are lengthy verbatim passages from the hearings and from the speeches made by the various participants during the proceedings and on the floor of the Senate during the confirmation vote.

This recounting of the Anita Hill part of the Thomas nomination is unnecessarily long and overly reliant on quotations. Nonetheless, is valuable because it gives us a more condensed, coherent and chronological recounting of the testimony of the witnesses. Moreover, it's uninterrupted by commercials, commentary, "spin

doctors" or any of the other distractions that interfered with our ability to understand the televised stories of Ms. Hill, Judge Thomas and the other witnesses.

The real value of this book lies in its attempt to clarify and explain what we did not see on television. Mr. Phelps and Ms. Winternitz, both former Sun reporters, offer us a disturbing portrait of Clarence Thomas' apparently calculated move to the right to position himself for the nomination, of the White House decision-making process that resulted in the nomination and of the paralysis of Senate Democrats through both sets of confirmation hearings.

There are no heroes here save for Anita Hill, who emerges as a tragic figure. The authors reveal the behind-the scenes "full-court press" that the White House and Senate Republicans mounted to discredit Ms. Hill. It is not a pretty picture.

But neither is the portrait painted of Senate Democrats like Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and Dennis DeConcini, who were too tarnished by their own scandals to be of any use in defending Ms. Hill or questioning Judge Thomas. The whole ugly event becomes more sordid with this telling of it.

Though Mr. Phelps and Ms. Winternitz spread the blame for what went wrong in the Thomas confirmation process, they are clearly in the anti-Thomas camp. Throughout their telling of this dramatic story, the language and tone of the authors make it clear whose side they are on. This is unfortunate, since they offer enough evidence to make the case against Judge Thomas without this sometimes irritating, sometimes overwrought style that will no doubt alienate Thomas supporters and diminish the power of their story.

Additionally, there is a subplot that involves Timothy Phelps and raises the question of his objectivity. Mr. Phelps, covering the Supreme Court for Newsday, was the reporter who broke the Anita Hill story in the "eleventh hour," just as the Senate was preparing to vote on the Thomas nomination. The story is told here in Mr. Phelps' voice, and the reader is periodically subjected to some rather self-important and self-serving commentary about his role in the exposure of the Hill allegations.

On the other hand, this subplot does add to our understanding of the affair. Mr. Phelps protects his sources, but he writes that the break did not come from leaked FBI reports, as Republicans and Thomas supporters claimed. Mr. Phelps confirms Anita Hill's contention that the Senate Judiciary Committee had access to her allegations early in the process but chose to do nothing about them.

Mr. Phelps and Ms. Winternitz base their anti-Thomas position on the evidence presented in the first half of the book which covers Judge Thomas' background and the initial confirmation hearings that focused on his judicial philosophy.

Too bad the first set of hearings didn't have the mass audience of the second set. I was deeply disturbed by the nominee's lack of candor, his refusal to acknowledge public statements that revealed his philosophy and his failure to display much understanding of constitutional law.

It was those hearings, and not the Hill allegations, that convinced me that Judge Thomas should not be confirmed, and the authors of "Capitol Games" make a similar case. They suggest that his performance in the first hearings should have damaged his credibility in the second round. He had already demonstrated that he was capable of a "confirmation conversion," disavowing his beliefs in order to gain a seat on the court.

The authors also argue that the hearing post-mortems have tended to place the blame for the fiasco with the Senate, letting President Bush off the hook for having made an execrable nomination to what is perhaps the nation's most important body.

They are right. If presidents continue to choose extreme ideologues with a kind of "in-your-face" attitude toward the Senate, they should anticipate difficulty in having those people confirmed.

Supreme Court justices have their jobs for life. Nominees ought to be scrutinized with care by both the White House and the Senate. The confirmation process is the first and last chance to find out what we can expect from a nominee. This book demonstrates that in the games surrounding the nomination of Clarence Thomas, both sides dropped the ball.

Katy J. Harriger is an associate professor of politics at Wake Forest University and author of "Independent Justice: The Federal Special Prosecutor in American Politics."

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