Sexual harassment allegations from Anita Hill almost upended the confirmation of Clarence Thomas – will this end differently?
The rightwing protection racket surrounding supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is closing ranks, girding for war now that their man is facing sexual misconduct allegations from a woman who says he sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. “It’s too late for there to be any serious consideration at this stage,” declared Kenneth Starr, the former Republican independent counsel who is a leader of the Kavanaugh defenders club.
It’s obvious, however, what must happen now. It’s not too late. The Senate judiciary committee has to delay the confirmation vote on Kavanaugh, who has categorically denied the allegations. The vote is scheduled for Thursday. That’s not enough time to investigate the allegations lodged by Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor who says that back in high school at an alcohol-infused party, Kavanaugh pinned her down on a bed, groped her and tried to take off her clothes. She escaped into a locked bathroom before he could complete the assault. The substance of her charges, spelled out in a letter to two California lawmakers in July, were first reported last week by the New Yorker’s intrepid Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow.
I’ve seen this movie before. Back in 1991, sexual harassment allegations from a then unknown Oklahoma law professor, Anita Hill, almost upended the confirmation of Clarence Thomas. Then, as now, the Republicans supporting a supreme court nominee said it was too late to consider the matter and portrayed her serious allegations as a last-ditch, liberal ambush. Only after female lawmakers in the House of Representatives marched over to the Senate to demand that Hill’s allegations be considered was his confirmation delayed for a new set of hearings.
Like Hill, Ford at first wanted to keep her allegations confidential but felt a duty to report the incident after Kavanaugh’s nomination. In her letter to the California lawmakers, including judiciary member Dianne Feinstein, Ford described the terrifying assault allegations, during which, she says, Kavanaugh covered her mouth so that she couldn’t scream. She wrote that she thought he might “inadvertently kill me”. Still, she wanted her identity protected. Hill did, too, until her affidavit, like Ford’s letter, leaked to the press.
Back in 1991, I covered the second set of hearings that Hill’s allegations belatedly triggered for the Wall Street Journal and later wrote a bestselling book about the controversy, Strange Justice, with Mayer. I watched as Thomas’s Republican supporters on the judiciary committee attempted to destroy Hill, who had corroborators in whom she had confided about Thomas’s lewd behavior. Despite her credibility, Republican senators portrayed Hill as a vengeful erotomaniac, shoveling out absurd evidence like a false affidavit from conservative law students claiming Hill had returned their exam books with pubic hair in them. It’s still amazing to me that Hill maintained her steadfast composure in the face of such partisan poison.
Democrats were cowed by the onslaught and did little to support Hill. Joe Biden, then the committee’s chairman, failed to call other women as witnesses who could have buttressed Hill’s testimony and knew Thomas as a harasser. Fearing political backlash, the curtain was brought down hastily and the vote to confirm Thomas was muscled through. That’s how we got one sexual miscreant, who lied his way to confirmation, on to the US supreme court. Last week, Hill, who now teaches at Brandeis University in Boston, called for a fair process to weigh the late-breaking charges against Kavanaugh. She said she has seen “firsthand what happens when such a process is weaponized against an accuser and no one should have to endure that again”.
Once again, the senior Democrat on the judiciary panel is under fire. It was Biden in 1991 who so badly fumbled the investigation of Hill’s allegations, with the silent ascent of fellow Democrats. Now it’s Feinstein who seems only belatedly to have referred Ford’s letter to the FBI. Feinstein, mistakenly, saw herself as protecting Ford’s identity. But a lifetime appointment to the court hung in the balance. Ironically, Feinstein’s election to the Senate in 1992 was part of the “Year of the Woman” backlash sparked by the mishandling of Hill’s case. Despite Ford’s concerns about her identity being protected, Feinstein should have been proactive.
Will the Kavanaugh hearing be derailed? It’s hard to say. Some congressional sources have told me they think misconduct from high school days is too long ago to warrant being denied appointment. Another difficulty for Ford may be that she has few corroborators, as she kept the incident secret until 2012, when she confided it only to her husband and therapist. She did pass a lie detector test recently, according to various news reports. More evidence could emerge in coming days.
It’s unfortunate that she did not feel emboldened to come forward earlier, but knowing what Hill went through, it’s easy to understand why Ford did not want to become the target for Republicans, who have become even more partisan and vicious than they were when Hill surfaced and testified.
The pressure is on to call public hearings on the matter. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican on the judiciary committee, has called for a delay of the vote, which puts the panel in a partisan deadlock. Feinstein, too, has called for delay. Senator Bob Corker, who is not a member of the committee but whose vote is critical to Kavanaugh’s confirmation, also said the committee should pause.
The key swing votes in the full Senate, like Maine’s Republican Senator Susan Collins, are under intense pressure. Collins, who depends on the support of women voters, left her position unclear on Sunday, though she did say she asked Kavanaugh about the charges last week and that he had strenuously denied them.
I shudder to think what Ford will be put through if public hearings are held. The White House, meanwhile, is standing by Kavanaugh, whose White House announcement ceremony last month put his great relationships with women, including his wife and daughters, on ostentatious display. That seemed a move to blunt opposition from women’s groups, who fear Kavanaugh will be the vote that overturns Roe v Wade. Thomas is already a secure vote to overturn.
Call this the Anita Hill moment meets the #MeToo movement. But will it end any differently?
Jill Abramson is a Guardian US columnist