Which was the real Anita Hill?

Anna Quindlen

April 27, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

ONE OF the most enduring socio-political mysteries of the 20th century for many Americans will surely be the question of what really happened between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Now along comes a whodunit entitled "The Real Anita Hill" that claims to clear things up.

It doesn't.

The thesis of this inquiry into the forces behind the woman who accused the man who was confirmed by the Senate to sit on the Supreme Court is that her supporters were wrong about her from beginning to end. The author, David Brock, posits a case that is part mistaken identity, part vendetta.

Here goes: An old friend who was told years before of sexual harassment in the workplace hears of the nomination and calls to ask if Anita is going to do anything about "that pig." Professor Hill does not correct the misconception about the identity of the pig, allowing her friend to believe it was Clarence Thomas.

(An alternate pig suspect is offered here. Mr. Brock is also enamored of the theory that Ms. Hill sometimes used charges of sexual harassment to excuse failures that were a function of an affirmative action system that pushed her beyond her capabilities.)

Her story becomes a rumor, leaked to reporters, passed on to members of the Senate. But instead of clearing up the misconception early on or refusing to testify later, Professor Hill, a crypto-radical who felt ill used by her former boss, winds up telling the world a series of whoppers to KO the nomination.

Before we even get to this extraordinary scenario, the book begins to sink beneath the weight of ideological bias. Justice Thomas' controversial defense of natural law came about, it's suggested, because he was "open to new ideas, some of which were voiced merely as trial balloons."

Opponents of the Thomas nomination are the sinister "Shadow Senate," while Thomas supporters are just plain folks. Susan Hoerchner, she of the pig conversation, is described as "something of a professional student" who allegedly took Valium and married three times.

And she worked for several months for a public-interest law organization affiliated with a group that -- more than a decade after she left -- opposed the nomination of Mr. Thomas!

Get me Oliver Stone.

These trees don't make a forest. Judge Hoerchner gave a year for Ms. Hill's confidence that could not have been accurate if her friend was speaking of Mr. Thomas; maybe her memory was off. Mr. Brock makes much of Ms. Hill's failure to give FBI agents gory details of the alleged harassment; the resulting dispute between the agents' recollections and the Hill testimony owes more to semantics than to substance.

Even the more compelling contradictions lie within the shadow of Mr. Brock's overwhelmingly one-sided reporting. The sources, in the main, fall into two categories: friends of Justice Thomas and anonymous detractors of Professor Hill. When Mr. Thomas supports black proteges, this is seen as praiseworthy; when Professor Hill is accused of favoring black students, she's a reverse racist.

According to Mr. Brock, she was not the mild-mannered conservative many took her for during the hearings, but a campus radical, obsessed with gender and racial politics. Mr. Brock's overwrought definition of radicalism, including those who support "cultural diversity," makes me feel like Karl Marx.

Professor Hill is portrayed as a nasty person, short of temper and of intellect. Yet she appeared unusually patient and intelligent before the Judiciary Committee and millions of Americans watching at home. Either Mr. Brock is wrong or it was the performance of a lifetime.

Ultimately the book relies on the idea that Ms. Hill was politically motivated to oppose the conservative who had been her mentor. Yet surely Mr. Brock would be affronted at the suggestion that his job at the American Spectator, a conservative journal -- miming Mr. Brock's style, I could call it an ultraconservative journal -- would provide him with the motive to slant his book. Mr. Brock received a grant from the John M. Olin Foundation, a champion of conservative causes. The book is not only steeped in ideology; it was financed by it.

Mr. Brock laments the one-sided reporting during the hearings, and with some reason. Maybe someday someone will write an evenhanded account. This isn't it.

Anna Quindlen is a New York Times columnist.

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