Who to believe Three years after Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, the nation is still debating . . .

November 02, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

Three years after her televised testimony riveted the nation and cast a still-looming shadow over the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment recapture the spotlight today with new revelations by women who say they could have supported her claims but were prevented from testifying before the Senate.

The disclosures appear in a much-anticipated book, "Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas," which is excerpted in today's Wall Street Journal and will be featured tonight on ABC's "Turning Point."

Information about the book has been tightly controlled by its publisher, Houghton Mifflin, to prevent leaks before its publication tomorrow. But interest in it indicates just how strongly Ms. Hill's charges -- and the issue of sexual harassment -- continue to resonate in the public psyche.

"You can stop any dinner party in town by saying two words, 'Anita,' 'Clarence,' " said Michel McQueen, the "Turning Point" correspondent who interviewed Ms. Hill, supporting witnesses, senators and others involved in the October 1991 hearings on Justice Thomas' appointment to the high court. "The issues they raised are very raw and very explosive -- the issue of race, the issue of sex, the role of women in the workplace. It touches on all of these hot-button issues."

The "buzz" over the book has been building for more than a year, ever since its authors, Wall Street Journal reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, wrote a scathing review for New Yorker magazine on a competing book on the Hill/Thomas controversy. Last month, they won a coveted nomination for a National Book Award, the first time in memory that a book not yet published or sent in advance to reviewers was nominated.

The first looks

Houghton Mifflin, which made exclusive agreements with the Journal and ABC News to give them first print- and electronic-media rights to the book, sent reviewers copies today. "Strange Justice" will arrive in bookstores tomorrow.

The book and TV program detail behind-the-scenes maneuvering that kept several women with stories supporting Ms. Hill from testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

These women appear on tonight's program: Angela Wright, Justice Thomas' former public relations director at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, tells of how he asked her the size of her breasts. Another former co-worker, Kaye Savage, says he displayed a nude centerfold in his kitchen; yet another, Sukari Hardnett, said she would hide in a friend's office to get away from his overtures.

Ms. Mayer tells "Turning Point" it became a "game of chicken" in which Republicans told Democrats that if such statements were aired, they would counter with allegations of their own about Ms. Hill's character.

And, so, Ms. Hill's charges were the only ones aired publicly during the hearings. Under the glare of the television lights and before the all-male committee, she testified that Justice Thomas joked about pubic hair on a Coke can and talked about pornographic movies with group sex, bestiality and rape scenes.

"It's a dramatic, point-counterpoint story, which is why people continue to return to it," said Marvin Kalb, a former broadcast correspondent and currently visiting professor of the press and public policy at George Washington University.

"But, what difference is it going to make? The answer is none," he added. "This man is on the Supreme Court and, unless he decides he can't take it any more and becomes a Tibetan monk, he's on it for life."

Nonetheless, the book is expected to get plenty of attention after today's first looks at its contents as follow-up stories and reviews begin to run. CNN talk show host Larry King will interview Ms. Mayer, a senior writer for the Journal, and Ms. Abramson, the Journal's deputy Washington bureau chief, tomorrow night.

Of course, no one but Ms. Hill, currently a University of Oklahoma law professor on a leave of absence, and Justice Thomas, her former boss at the EEOC, will ever know exactly what transpired between them. But, interestingly, public opinion has shifted over time, with polls indicating that more people believe her version now than they did at the time of the 1991 hearings.

After two days of testimony, a Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 55 percent of the people surveyed did not believe Ms. Hill while 34 percent did. A year later, however, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed 44 percent believed her and 34 percent believed Justice Thomas.

Media critic Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, attributes that shift to people growing increasingly comfortable with publicly discussing the formerly taboo subject of sexual harassment.

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