Thomas, Hill: Their Obits Will Have the Last Word

ELLEN GOODMAN

October 13, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--Not long ago, a beleaguered pollster drew my name out of the hatful of journalists being surveyed for opinions about the role of the media and politics.

Pity the poor pollster.

Asking journalists questions is a bit like prescribing medicine for doctors. Thank you very much, but we do the questions.

The woman was polite and persistent. I was impossible and resistant. She wanted to quantify my opinions. I wanted to qualify them. She dealt in numbers. I dealt in words.

She read off her list of multiple-choice answers. Choose one of the above. Answer yes or no. Pick between better or worse, more or less.

I tried to rewrite the questions. None of the above. Yes and No. Better than what? Less is more.

This duet was predictable. After all, if I wanted my opinions in arithmetic form, I would have been an accountant. Instead, I choose to do the essay questions.

I thought of our exchange when the anniversary stories about the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings appeared. Invariably, these included the same statistical surveys. A year ago, when registered voters were asked who was telling the truth, they picked Judge Thomas by 16 to 24 points. This year, they picked Ms. Hill by 10 points.

These numbers were supposed to make us believe that over the past 12 months, the public court of appeals had been studying the tapes and transcripts into the wee hours of the night and reversed its decision. The Wall Street Journal called this ''a remarkable turnaround.''

Well, not so fast. I wasn't convinced that the pick-the-liar polls told the whole story in 1991. Nor am I convinced that they tell it all in 1992. Indeed, if there was ever a story that is impossible to tell in numbers, it is this one.

By the end of the hearings, Americans did indeed have opinions. Lots of them. I suspected then that the plurality of the people who ''believed'' Mr. Thomas, didn't really think that Ms. Hill was a psychopathic liar writing Tales from a Coke Can. They had a much more complicated view.

They thought that ''something happened'' but they weren't sure what. Something happened but it wasn't that horrible. Something happened but -- hey -- it happens all the time. Something happened but it was 10 years ago. It wasn't fair to bring it up at the last minute. She shouldn't have hurt an African American man. Choose all of the above. Or better yet, write your own version.

Twelve months later and we still have opinions. But the essential story, the background against which this played, has shifted perceptibly.

Today, Clarence Thomas is on the Supreme Court. The man who expressed outrage at a ''high-tech lynching'' is also reported to be insulated and embittered. He must know now how his obituary will read: ''Clarence Thomas, who became a Supreme Court Justice after a bitter nomination hearing that raised the issue of sexual harassment . . . ''

Today, Anita Hill carries her role in history with restraint and pride. Not the history of the Supreme Court. The history of women in American life. Her obituary? ''Anita Hill, whose testimony at the hearings ignited a new wave of activism . . . ''

Women who had been playing possum, stifled by a belief that this was the conservative, post-feminist era, found each other in one spontaneous combustion. Many were newly determined that their voices be heard in the inner sanctums and hearing rooms. And that they be believed.

That's what has shifted. Not just the numbers of women running for office -- the Anita Hill Class of 1992. Not just the record-breaking number of women filing sexual-harassment charges. But the greater number of women who insist on being heard and expect to be believed.

It's Lt. Paula Coughlin taking on the Navy. It's a college freshman putting a name on what happened: date rape. It's a co-worker labeling the office atmosphere: sexual harassment.

Anita Hill's courage encouraged others to share the details of their everyday struggles in public. The cumulative effect of that sharing has made our stories more believable. When people say they believe Ms. Hill now, they believe that sexual harassment is real, painful. And that it matters.

It's not always easy to put a number on such changes of mind. When the pollsters call, it's hard to condense elaborate and human stories into their multiple-choice parts.

But a year later, here is one question for the computer bank. Which one would you rather be: (A) Justice Clarence Thomas; (B) Professor Anita Hill. Circle B on my answer sheet.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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