Sunday, October 24, 2010

Remembrances of Things Past, Best Forgotten

      “The past is never forgotten; it’s never even past.”
— William Faulkner

      Clarence Thomas is a Supreme Court justice with a long, but selective, memory. Apparently, the same is true of his wife, Virginia Thomas, who made front-page news this month not only as a Republican/Tea Party activist but also as a loyal spouse seeking vindication for her husband nearly two decades after accusations of sexual harassment nearly derailed his appointment to the high court.
      In interviews and in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, Justice Thomas can recall slights as far back as his childhood. But he conveniently forgets the role that his unappreciated Yale law degree and the Republican Party’s racial politics played in advancing his career from Senate staffer to head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and eventually as the second African American to serve on the Supreme Court.
      Similarly, Ginni Thomas apparently still feels the pain from having listened in October 1991 to law professor Anita Hill accuse her husband of sexual harassment while she worked for him at the EEOC. But in her bizarre voice mail message this month [Oct. 9] asking Hill to recant, Ginni Thomas conveniently forgets that Hill’s accusation before the Senate Judiciary Committee was buttressed by significant, if admittedly circumstantial, corroborating evidence.
      The recapitulation of evidence by two reporters-turned-columnists who covered the hearing — Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post and Bloomberg’s Ann Woolner — provides a good reminder that this is no “he said, she said” swearing contest. Yes, as Marcus writes, only Thomas and Hill can know “the full truth” of what happened between them. But Marcus and Woolner both make clear that this is a “he said, they said” swearing contest with the weight of the evidence supporting Hill’s explosive accusation.
      Hill, then in her mid-30s at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law and now at Brandeis University, had more to lose than to gain from coming forward, reluctantly, with her allegations against Thomas after the presumed close of his confirmation hearing. Under oath, she testified that while working as Thomas’s assistant at the EEOC, he made a variety of sexually provocative and tasteless remarks to her, including the infamous reference to a pubic hair in a Coke can. Thomas, also under oath, vehemently denied the allegations and provocatively labeled himself as the victim of a “high-tech lynching.”
      Thomas’s supporters then and now point to the difficulty of proving a negative. It was also difficult, of course, for Hill to prove an affirmative about events that only the two of them witnessed. But corroborating evidence was in fact produced. Two of Hill’s friends, Ellen Wells and Susan Hoerchner, testified that Hill told them about the alleged sexual harassment in 1982. John Carr, a boyfriend in a long-distance relationship in 1983, also testified that Hill told him of the alleged conduct. And Joel Paul, a law professor at American University, testified that when the school was recruiting Hill in 1987, she cited sexual harassment as the reason for her resignation from the EEOC.
      As Woolner points out, prosecutors often use evidence of “outcry” to support rape accusations in a criminal case. In addition, another of Thomas’s employees at EEOC, press secretary Angela Wright, told the Senate staff that he had pressured her for dates, to the point of an uninvited late-night appearance at her apartment. She did not testify publicly because the then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden limited testimony to Thomas’s conduct in the workplace. Biden also ruled out as an invasion of privacy any evidence about Thomas’s reported interest in pornography.
      As Marcus recounts, journalist-authors found more supporting evidence afterward. Jane Mayer (now at the New Yorker) and Jill Abramson (now news managing editor of the New York Times) include in their book, Strange Justice, accounts from two others at the EEOC of similar pubic hair/Coke can remarks. In their biography, Supreme Discomfort, the Washington Post’s Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher quote a college classmate of Thomas’s as describing “an almost identical episode.”
      History must judge the episode as inconclusive. Thomas won confirmation, with several pivotal senators saying before the 52-48 vote that they had to disregard the allegations as unproven. With interest renewed by Ginni Thomas’s phone call, however, one more corroborating witness has emerged. Lillian McEwen, a now retired government lawyer who dated Thomas for five years in the 1980s, told the Washington Post that Thomas constantly sized up female employees as “potential partners.” In the interview and in a forthcoming memoir, McEwen also describes Thomas as avidly interest in pornography.
      Ginni Thomas has previously called on Hill in interviews to recant and apologize, but the phone message at Hill's office unnerved her enough to turn it over to campus police. Ginni Thomas’s motivation is unknown, beyond her stated belief that it was time for Hill to pray about doing the right thing; she reportedly canceled some scheduled media interviews last week, avoiding questions. In his memoir three years ago, Justice Thomas again denied wrongdoing and depicted the accusations as a politically motivated attack on him as a black conservative.
      Hill and many of us who covered the hearing believe with her that she has nothing to apologize for. Hill’s supporters have been forced to get past it, but for Clarence and Ginni Thomas the past is not forgotten; it is not even past.

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