On Thursday, April 25, 2019, after weeks of will-he-or-won’t-he media speculation, former vice president Joe Biden finally made it official. After serving two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden announced that he would enter the 2020 Democratic primaries, hoping to be the one selected to face Donald Trump in the 2020 General Election.
Biden is far from a novice in presidential politics; his 2019-20 run will be his third attempt. But before making his official announcement there was one “loose end” that had to tie down if he expected to win his share of the women’s vote in 2020. He would have to call Prof. Anita Hill to apologize for what she considers to be her shabby “mistreatment” during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in October 1991, when he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As Hill described the conversation to the New York Times, Biden said, “I cannot be satisfied by simply saying I’m sorry for what happened to you. I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose.” But Hill was far from satisfied with what she considered to be a halfhearted apology. Instead, she complained that one apology does not make up for the pain suffered by victims of sexual violence when they saw how poorly she was treated by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Thomas confirmation hearings.
However, looking back from the perspective of 2019, we are forced to ask, “Does Anita Hill really deserve an apology?” Instead, shouldn’t we be asking, “Who will apologize to Clarence Thomas for the humiliation he suffered at the hands of Judiciary Committee Democrats?”
Clarence Thomas was nominated as an Associate Justice by President George H.W. Bush on July 1, 1991. It was a great victory for conservatives to see Bush nominate a conservative black man to replace Thurgood Marshall, a liberal black man, on the high court. However, if Thomas had known in advance the physical and emotional agony he would experience in the weeks and months ahead, he would not have hesitated; he would have declined the president’s nomination.
From 1974 to 1977, following graduation from Yale Law School, Thomas served as an Assistant Attorney General in the office of Missouri Attorney General John Danforth (later Governor of Missouri and United States Senator), whom Thomas met at Yale Law School. So it was that then-Senator John Danforth (R-MO) became Thomas’s Senate escort, shepherding him through a full month of “murder room” preparation and courtesy calls on senators.
It was a grueling experience, both physically and emotionally, but the worst of it was having to silently endure the non-stop attacks of liberals, Democrats, and every left-wing interest group in the country. As Thomas described it, “(The attacks) were immediate. The attacks did nothing but make clear my foreboding… It was like I was about to die… the whole summer was like a rerun of my life, backwards and forward… I mean, everything was like that, and I was scared to death. I was frightened and I wanted to go home.”
But the worst was yet to come. On September 16, a member of Senator Strom Thurmond’s staff overheard a conversation between Senator Biden and Judiciary Committee chief counsel Ron Klain. According to an account in former Senator Jack Danforth’s book, Resurrection (Viking Penguin, 1994), Klain argued, “She could testify behind a screen.” To which Biden replied, “That’s ridiculous. You can’t do that. This isn’t the Soviet Union.”
On Monday, September 23, Thomas’s worst fears were realized. He and his supporters learned that one of his former employee, a black woman named Anita Hill, had submitted a four-page complaint to the Senate Judiciary Committee, alleging that, when she worked for him at the Dept. of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1981-83, Thomas had attempted to date her, and that, on more than one occasion, he made off-color sexual remarks in her presence. Thomas did not learn the details of Hill’s allegations until he was informed by FBI agents at his home on Wednesday, September 25, five days after the Judiciary Committee completed their hearings. In her committee testimony on October 11, Hill alleged that in one instance he made reference to a “pubic hair on a Coke can.” She also alleged that on another occasion, he made reference to a pornographic character named “Long Dong Silver.”
Thomas was stunned. The Supreme Court confirmation was his third Senate confirmation. If Hill was still upset about something she remembered him saying nearly ten years earlier, why didn’t she come forward when Ronald Reagan appointed him to head the EEOC, or when George H.W. Bush appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit, the second highest court in the land? Thomas’s phone logs showed that Hill had telephoned him “just to check in” at least eleven times between 1984 and 1990. If she was so upset with him that she would attempt to ruin his life in 1991, what were all those friendly calls about?
Clarence Thomas completed his confirmation testimony on Monday, September 16. And with four days of testimony by other witnesses, the hearings were completed on Friday, September 20. All that remained was for Chairman Biden to set the time and date for the committee vote on confirmation… unless, of course, the Hill allegations became public knowledge in the interim.
But, as Thomas should have known, confidentiality in the nation’s capital is never a certainty; only a hope. In the days immediately following the close of the Judiciary Committee hearings, someone on the committee staff leaked the Hill allegations to the media. The confirmation was put on hold and committee Democrats began to talk in terms of a delay in the committee vote.
Overnight, the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill confrontation became the lead story in every news magazine, every newspaper, and in every radio and television broadcast. Clarence Thomas, a famously quiet and private man, was totally devastated. As Jack Danforth wrote in his book, Resurrection, Clarence said, “I was physically ill. I didn’t throw up; I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t do anything. My stomach was sick. I felt like throwing up… I forget which morning it was that Virginia threw up… Then my mother calls up and she saw it and she couldn’t go back to work… she was sick. My brother called up and my sister-in-law called. They were all in tears.”
The Thomas family was devastated. They were being treated to the same family destruction that the Bork family suffered in 1987 and the Kavanaugh family suffered in 2018. According to Jack Danforth, Ginni Thomas told him that the fact that “a future justice of the Supreme Court was writhing on the floor is awful enough to tell. But it must be told, for this is the result when there are those who believe a cause justifies the destruction of a person.” What they were doing to Clarence Thomas was simply standard Democratic tactics. They are truly despicable people.
However, while Clarence Thomas agonized at his home in Virginia, his Republican supporters in the Senate and at the White House were busy trying to make some sense of the Anita Hill attack strategy, and they were having some success. For example, they learned that the “pubic hair on a Coke can” reference was almost certainly taken from a scene in The Exorcist. They also learned in a phone call from Evan Kemp, Thomas’s successor at the EEOC, that “Long Dong Silver” was likely a reference to a well-known character in the literature of employment discrimination law… subject matter that Anita Hill taught at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
It was also learned that, following Anita Hill’s dramatic committee testimony, the White House received telephone calls from four or five psychiatrists, each describing the same hypothesis for Hill’s allegations. As former senator Danforth wrote in Resurrection, “The hypothesis was known as erotomania, a rare delusion of some women that particular men in positions of power, such as supervisors or political figures, have romantic interests in them.” As the psychiatrists described the disorder, a woman with erotomania could be quite specific in describing fantasized behavior by a man and would be so thoroughly convinced that the behavior had actually occurred that she would be capable of passing a polygraph test.
Chairman Biden scheduled the second round of hearings for Friday, October 11, at 10:00 AM However when the Thomases retired at 11:30 PM on Thursday evening, October 10, he was so overcome with physical and emotional pain that he was unable to produce a statement. As Ginni Thomas recalls, he was up again at 1:00 AM and back at the kitchen table. With his head in his hands and a prayer on his lips, he resolved to discard all of his previous work and to begin again.
Thomas recalls thinking, “(Let) me just think. Let me open up to the Holy Spirit. Then I just started from square one. Not with other people’s ideas. I looked at the draft and I just started writing. I continued writing.” In his statement, Thomas did not attempt to respond to Anita Hill’s charges. Instead, he wrote of what the confirmation hearings had done to him, and why it was wrong. By 4:45 AM the statement was complete and the Thomases retired until 6:00 AM. The night before the biggest day in his life, Clarence Thomas slept for just fifteen minutes.
Clarence Thomas was given the opportunity to appear first, with an opportunity for a rebuttal after Anita Hill’s testimony. The statement that Clarence Thomas read from the witness table in the Senate Caucus Room at 10:00 AM on Friday, October 11, 1991, was the most devastating rebuke that a committee of the United States Senate had ever absorbed.
In his closing remarks after 9:00 PM, Thomas uttered the most memorable lines from his day of testimony… lines that will forever be a stain on the United States Senate. He said, “I think that this today is a travesty. I think that it is disgusting. I think that this hearing should never occur in America. This is a case in which this sleaze, this dirt, was searched for by staffers of members of this committee, was then leaked to the media, and this committee and this body validated it and displayed it in prime time over our entire nation…
“This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.”
What has brought this sad chapter in U.S. Senate history back to relevancy is Joe Biden’s return to the presidential campaign trail. Specifically, the Hill/Thomas controversy was given new life on Friday, April 26, during Biden’s appearance on ABC’s The View. Confronted by host Joy Behar with rumors of Anita Hill’s discomfort with Biden’s Judiciary Committee performance in 1991, Biden claimed repeatedly that he had believed Anita Hill from the moment he heard her allegations against Clarence Thomas in 1991.
This was a complete contradiction of a recent report by Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at The Federalist, who quotes the late Senator Arlen Specter as saying that, in 1998, Biden had admitted to him that, “It was clear to me from (her response to Specter’s questions) that she was lying.” Following the close of the hearings, national opinion polls showed that 58% of Americans believed Clarence Thomas, while only 24% believed Anita Hill.
Clarence Thomas was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on October 23, 1991 by a largely party-line vote of 52-48. Of the 48 senators who voted “No” on Thomas’s confirmation, only two, Senators Packwood (R-OR) and Jeffords (R-VT), were Republicans. In spite of what Thomas had been put through at the hands of Judiciary Committee Democrats, 46 of them still voted not to confirm him.
Although not much has changed on the Democrat side of the aisle in the U.S. Senate, let us hope that the Biden candidacy in 2020 will at least reopen the Clarence Thomas confirmation debacle to public scrutiny. Clarence Thomas is a good man. He did not deserve what happened to him. Democrats owe Justice Thomas a very big apology, but that’s just not the kind of thing Democrats do.
Paul R. Hollrah is a retired government relations executive and a two-time member of the U.S. Electoral College. He currently lives and writes among the hills and lakes of northeast Oklahoma’s Green Country.