Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Over-the-Hill Revival

Justice Clarence Thomas hardly ever speaks in Supreme Court sessions (281 words in three years by one count), but his wife has reached across almost two decades to revive his most painful public moment--the sexual harassment accusations at his confirmation hearing in 1991.

In a voice mail message, Virginia Thomas asks accuser Anita Hill "to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband...And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. O.K., have a good day.”

Hill told the Senate Judiciary Committee back then that Thomas, her boss at government agencies, had sexually harassed her with remarks about pubic hair in his Coke and a porn star named Long Dong Silver.

The ensuing soap opera of character assassination by both sides was a national disgrace, which ended only after Thomas, who had been deferential until then, expressed his anger over what he called a “high tech lynching” and was eventually confirmed.

Mrs. Thomas' motive in revisiting that mess is obscure, but it brings back a memorable picture of pre-Obama America, limned by my friend and one-time colleague, the late Walter Goodman, who reviewed the hearings as a long-running TV show for the New York Times:

"The days and nights of Senate Judiciary Committee coverage...brought out realities of American society in the form of the faces of white power and black achievement.

"Most conspicuously, there was the committee itself--14 white men sitting in judgment of a black woman and a black man…The Senators seemed self-conscious in this neighborhood, like tourists on a visit uptown. In their questions to the nominee, the Democrats tiptoed around him as if he were an undetonated mine...

"(R)eporters found many blacks who were distressed that so distasteful an episode was being exposed to the nation...but in fact the picture presented of black Americans was very different from most of what ordinarily reaches television sets and was nothing to be unhappy about.

"Here were none of the criminals who populate the local news shows, nor any sappy sit-comer or preening celebrity. Instead, the screen was opened up to black professionals, successful students, successful lawyers, successful Americans.

"Along with declaring themselves united against racism, the bickering white men also joined in opposition to sexual harassment...brought on by a storm of anger over the committee's perceived lack of passion on the subject, and the Senators wanted to make one thing clear: they really hated it.

"But how could their chorus of sympathy for women compete with the picture of them up there hour after hour, day after day, all men, all white? Their existence had never been a secret, but in this situation it assumed a kind of notoriety."

Demographics and public attitudes have changed somewhat since then, but the hypocrisy remains and is being amped up at this moment by the Tea Party rampage.

Anita Hill says she has nothing to apologize for, since she was just telling what happened, but Virginia Thomas wants her to "pray about this" and find some higher truth. After all, her husband's vote got George W. Bush into the White House and made truth through prayer a popular form of public discourse.

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