Thomas tells panel he won't withdraw Nominee, supporters seize the offensive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Judge Clarence Thomas fought feverishly yesterday to save his Supreme Court nomination, saying he "would rather die than withdraw," as he and his supporters worked aggressively to undercut the word of his chief accuser -- Anita F. Hill.

In a long, draining day in a Senate committee's witness chair, the 43-year-old judge and senators who support his approval appeared to be regaining some of the momentum with three days to go before a planned Senate vote.

A dual strategy emerged, with the seeming effect of putting the Senate, its Judiciary Committee and Ms. Hill and those who support her on the defensive: a point-by-point suggestion that her accusations of sexual misconduct were made up, and a portrayal of Judge Thomas as the victim of vicious racial stereotypes about black males' sexuality.

Senators working with Judge Thomas conceded that Ms. Hill's poise and "very believeable" testimony, as one of them described it, had made it critical to move the Senate's and the public's attention back to the wrong they perceived to have been done to the nominee.

Judge Thomas was the central figure in carrying out the energetic new strategy. He allowed his rage to flow freely, joined in the denunciation of Ms. Hill, added his implied support to the notion that she was a willing pawn of activist anti-Thomas groups, verbally supported the blunt accusation of Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., that Ms. Hill had lied on the witness stand and vowed not to bow out no matter how much pain it caused him.

So disturbed was he, he told the committee, that "if I were asked by George Bush today to accept nomination to the Supreme Court, I would refuse flatly."

But, when Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, noted rumors that Judge Thomas would withdraw and asked the nominee about them, Judge Thomas said, with anger punctuating every word:

"If they are going to kill me, they're going to kill me. I'd rather die than withdraw from the process . . . I never ran from bullies."

Keeping his emotions mostly in check even as he let his discontent burst forth in words, Judge Thomas repeatedly denounced the Judiciary Committee's public airing of Oklahoma law professor Hill's sexual misconduct charges against him. He repeatedly contrasted the hearing with what he called his "real confirmation hearings" back in September.

And, for the first time in the 105 days since the president chose him for the highest court, Judge Thomas loosed a scathing assault on unnamed "interest groups" for having "developed and concocted" a story of sexual harassment "to destroy me."

Going even further, the nominee said of those groups: "I expected them to attempt to kill me. Yes, I expected an attempt on my life."

He named no names, and cited no evidence for that expectation.

The judge was allowed to leave shortly before 6 p.m., and the committee scheduled an extraordinary Sunday session to hear other witnesses: those who will support Ms. Hill and her version of events, followed by those who will support Judge Thomas.

The panel was planning to call a Charlotte, N.C., newspaper editor, Angela D. Wright, who -- like Ms. Hill -- formerly worked for Mr. Thomas in the government and who has made her own charges of "inappropriate" sexual advances by him.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., briefly brought up Ms. Wright's name yesterday and asked whether Judge Thomas knew of any reason why she would be attacking him. He replied: "I terminated her very aggressively, and summarily, a number of years ago" from a job at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Mr. Thomas was the commission chairman for seven years.

Judge Thomas, taking the offensive throughout yesterday's hearing, used answers to a variety of questions to repeat his complaints about being destroyed personally and to make his bitter accusations of racism.

His voice broke noticeably at one point, late in the day, when he told the committee of getting a telephone call on Saturday night a week ago informing him that the sexual misconduct accusations had been leaked to the press.

After a long silence, he told he senators quietly: "The person you knew, whether you voted for me or against me, died."

Since he first learned of the accusations on Sept. 25, the judge said, he had been living on one hour of sleep at night, has lost 15 pounds, has been unable to eat or drink and has been "unable to think about anything but this and wondering why, how."

He had told the senators earlier in the day: "I would have preferred an assassin's bullet to this kind of living hell."

Judge Thomas had moved only a little way into his testimony yesterday morning when he began raging against the "race-based stereotypes" that he said have long been used to destroy the reputations of black males.

Throughout his life, he said, he has heard the kind of language Ms. Hill used on Friday about boasts of sexual prowess and of the size of sex organs. That language "plays into the most racist stereotypes against black males."

He said his complaints about the televised hearings being a "high-tech lynching" were based in part upon the use by Ms. Hill of "the worst stereotypes we have about black men in this country."

Yesterday, first Mr. Hatch and then Mr. Specter made themselves the chief antagonists of Ms. Hill.

The Utah senator implied that the Oklahoma woman may have found in a Kansas court opinion a reference to an X-rated movie star who goes by the name of "Long Dong Silver." And he hinted that someone on Ms. Hill's legal team had found a reference to a pubic hair being in a drink -- a comment she had said Mr. Thomas made to her -- in the novel "The Exorcist."

Later, under questioning by Democratic senators who appeared be speculating whether Mr. Thomas had himself found those two sources and had used them in conversation with Mr. Hill, the nominee said he had not read the Kansas court opinion or "The Exorcist."

Mr. Specter, in his turn, accused Ms. Hill of lying to the committee in her Friday morning testimony, bluntly using the word "perjury" to denounce a statement she had made denying a comment about the effect her accusations would have on Mr. Thomas' nomination. But, the senator said, she may have absolved herself legally by changing her version, with her lawyer's advice, in the afternoon session.

Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., sought to help revive Ms. Hill's credibility by reading at length from her testimony to show how she had related her answers on that subject to each other.

Mr. Specter, supported by affirmative answers from Judge Thomas, suggested in other questions that Ms. Hill may have given "incredible" statements about three other incidents in her testimony.

The judge, pressed by Mr. Biden to say whether he thought Ms. Hill had been put up to the task of putting out a false story to undermine Mr. Thomas' nomination, refused to blame her directly. Blaming "interest groups" of having "put it together," he said he did not know how the story had actually gotten before the committee.

At other points in his testimony, Judge Thomas sought to minimize the significance of his work relationship with Ms. Hill, insisted that he had never asked her out on dates and denounced what she had told the committee as "scurrilous lies."

After his daylong demonstration of his pain, the nominee was asked at the end by one of his Democratic supporters -- Sen. Dennis DeConcini of New Mexico -- whether he could "recover as an individual and survive on the Supreme Court."

"Yes, I can heal . . . I'll survive, a different person," the nominee said. Although he said he had hoped his nomination would be "an occasion for joy," Judge Thomas said there had "never been a single day of joy in this process."

When Mr. DeConcini pressed him about his ability to judge cases on the court, after what he had been through, the judge said that his own experience in the past two weeks "has heightened my awareness to the importance" of protecting individuals' privacy, their rights and fair procedures.

As the day ended, Mr. Biden urged the nominee to "wait until it is all over -- it will be over in the next two days." The chairman said that, with him at least, the "presumption" is "with you." The chairman apparently meant the "presumption" that the sexual misconduct charges were not proved until all the evidence had been produced.

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