'Justice' without depth, 'Resurrection' with revelation on Thomas

November 13, 1994|By Lyle Denniston

After three years, the curtain has been lifted teasingly again on one of America's most sordid bits of political theater: the peep show that was the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill matter. The main actors remain the same, and, perhaps sadly, the mystery simply runs on, unsolved and -- dare it be said -- unsolvable.

The latest production, two new books, brings back the bad aroma of this X-rated affair, which sullied everyone it touched even while raising consciousness over sexual harassment. But these two volumes don't clarify anything of real importance.

Back when this ugliness was playing out on national television in the fall of 1991, as the Senate considered Mr. Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court and Ms. Hill's sexually explicit accusations against him, no one could have maintained the composure -- or the good sense -- to explain what it all meant, or to tell what in fact had happened.

But time, passing time, might have made a difference, and much of Washington's political and legal community -- not least Clarence Thomas -- has seemed to be yearning for some definitive end to it.

Much, therefore, was expected of an ambitious book that was begun more than two years ago and has just now emerged after what appears to have been a monumental labor. Few books have been awaited with such eagerness -- for some, such foreboding -- as has the Jane Mayer-Jill Abramson project (too cleverly titled "Strange Justice"). This was to be the definitive work, with two diligent Wall Street Journal reporters having the skill to do it and, equally important, the time.

Ms. Mayer and Ms. Abramson might have done one or both of two things. Perhaps they could have dug deeply enough, into files and memories, to get the full story, or a near approximation of it. Or they could have put the affair into a broad historic setting, providing texture and understanding -- something to last beyond the titillation.

Alas, their book does neither. It moves the story forward somewhat, but it is not even close to a full account. It provides details -- details, details, always more details. It fills in some explanations and closes some gaps. Many facts and assertions are new, many old, some interesting, a few truly promising, none genuinely conclusive. Its greatest failing, however, is that it is not at all a book of history but rather is an incorrigibly journalistic venture with practically no depth and no well-defended conclusions.

Upfront, the authors tell you they are reasonably close to being convinced that Ms. Hill did not lie but that Mr. Thomas did. (Even if they had not said that in so many words, one need read only a few pages into the book to be satisfied of their inclination; the very choice of language and of imagery leaves no doubt whose side they are on.)

Promoted by a publisher's agent who was truly gifted at using hide-and-seek confidentiality to manufacture excitement, the book landed on one's reading table with a thud of major promise. It does not land on one's consciousness in the same way.

It is an easy read, easy in the way of a magazine piece: deft, well-ordered, occasionally felicitous. But there is no challenge to thought, no summoning of history, no definition of larger issues except in the airy bromides that pass for meaningful political discourse in Washington these days.

One puts down this book with no greater understanding of politics, of the triumphs and tribulations of either the civil rights or the women's rights revolutions, of the past and future of the Supreme Court, of the reasons why the U.S. Senate and the Senate Judiciary Committee behave as wretchedly as they sometimes do.

One implied conclusion seeps out, and it is simple and clear: There is not enough here to do real damage to Justice Thomas' young judicial career. Among the newly exposed items in this book, there is none that will shake Justice Thomas' hold on his court seat. Although he is a restless man, it seems fair to say he can rest more easily now.

That well-meaning and sensible people had thought there might be a good deal more that could be learned, and had expected it to come out and to be strong enough to produce significant consequences, is perhaps merely testimony that Americans do not like to leave things in a state of untidy ambiguity. That is precisely where Ms. Mayer and Ms. Abramson, too, have left it.

If one yearns for simplicity for simplicity's sake, though, there is now a book that offers that, too. Just two weeks ahead of the Mayer-Abramson book, Sen. John Danforth of Missouri responded to Washington's appetite for more on Justice Thomas by providing a total, no-doubts-whatsoever defense of Mr. Thomas and a nearly total defense of the counter-campaign to smear Ms. Hill in order to undercut her credibility before the nation.

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