Apologies to Anita

November 16, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

LIKE ONE of those fun-house mirrors that shows splintered reflections at crazy and confusing angles, the Clarence Thomas in a new book titled "Strange Justice" is many different men.

There is the man who said not long ago that he really would have liked to run a small business or drive a truck, as though his elevation were a martyrdom. And there is the young lawyer who, in 1981, was telling acquaintances he intended someday to sit on the Supreme Court.

There is the man who spoke feelingly of growing up poor in Pin Point, Ga. And there is the one who trashed his own sister to make points about welfare dependency -- at a time when she says she was working double shifts in a nursing home at minimum wage.

There was the opinionated conservative running the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And there is the milquetoast of the confirmation hearings, prepped to within an inch of his life to make him more palatable.

Finally there is the Clarence Thomas who answered the charges of sexual harassment by a former co-worker named Anita Hill with thundering rage and disgust, saying that the tales of porno movies and smutty language and come-ons were all preposterous, insulting, a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

And then there is the other one, that only a small group of friends and acquaintances recognized. While many listened to Professor Hill and thought, "This cannot be," these people were saying to themselves: "Yep, that's Clarence."

"Ninety percent of the time he was a perfect gentleman," said Gordon Davis, an engineer who was a friend in college. "But 1 percent of the time he would go off the deep end. He'd say stuff I can't possibly repeat, stuff that would turn your ears red." A lawyer who knew him at Yale Law School, Henry Terry, calls Mr. Thomas "one of the crudest people I have ever met," adding, "When Anita Hill started talking, I knew the man was guilty . . . the examples she gave sounded too much like him for it not to have been Clarence Thomas."

A great many people in high places owe Anita Hill a public apology. A former acquaintance surfaces for the first time to say she told him of the harassment when it occurred, exploding the suggestion that this was a cooked-up political vendetta. The bizarre "pubic hair on my Coke" remark, which Sen. Orrin Hatch suggested Ms. Hill had lifted from a book, was in fact heard or heard of by several other co-workers at the EEOC.

The former corporation counsel of Washington recalls running into Clarence Thomas at a video store checking out a triple-X film about a hugely obese black woman named "Bad Mama Jama." A career civil servant named Kaye Savage visited Mr. Thomas' apartment and was stunned to find the walls covered with Playboy centerfolds. Neither fact proves that Clarence Thomas harassed Anita Hill, but both contrast sharply with the outraged probity that the nominee brought to Ms. Hill's allegations about talking trash.

Another woman, Angela Wright, who is now a newspaper editor, was prepared to testify that Mr. Thomas had spoken to her in the office about her breasts, her legs, her sexual allure. She was never called; some senators insisted she would be a weak witness because she'd been fired by Mr. Thomas. Yet "Strange Justice" notes that when Ms. Wright applied for a new job her old boss wrote a glowing recommendation. She couldn't understand why he would try to mollify her until one of his friends confided, "he expects to be nominated to the Supreme Court."

But before Clarence Thomas was confirmed for a job he'd wanted for years, he publicly shamed this country by suggesting that he was being humiliated because he was black. And his supporters shamed Ms. Hill by suggesting that she was unstable and vindictive when there was no evidence of either. "What would I want with a woman as black as Anita Hill?" his mother recalled Clarence Thomas asking, noting his predilection for lighter skin.

This story is over as far as life tenure on the court is concerned. But the shame should not be allowed to stand. There is ample evidence here that the Clarence Thomas reflected in Anita Hill's testimony was no phantasm but a person known in some or all of his less savory manifestations to others. Dust off your "I Believe Anita Hill" buttons. They're still good.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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