WASHINGTON — Washington -- THE 107-day saga of sex, race and venom ended at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday when Dan Quayle banged his gavel and intoned, "Clarence Thomas is confirmed as associate justice of the Supreme Court."
Quayle barely kept the edge of jubilation from his voice.
Packed Senate galleries gave a ragged, relieved cheer. The 100 senators scrambled out of the chamber like passengers running from a flaming plane crash. But they can't escape the bitter Clarence Thomas afterglow, which will haunt politics through the 1992 election.
Thomas survived by 52-48, the narrowest edge in 100 years of Supreme Court history, but sour, weary emotions lingered like a tear gas cloud.
A movie camera might have zeroed in on the star actors uttering exit lines. Thomas under a rain-pocked umbrella, saying: "This is the time for healing, not anger or animus or animosity." Or Anita Hill, chin high in Oklahoma, insisting, "I would do it again because it was the right thing."
Now that the Thomas melodrama which glued the nation to TV sets for five days is over, who won? Who lost?
That's easy. The victors were George Bush, his White House team and Republican operatives who proved again they're masters of hardball, especially at the sly game of using race.
Bush got a 1992 election bonanza from the Thomas squeaker. He gained popularity with black, middle-class voters who overwhelmingly favored Thomas. Bush can now ridicule a confused, corrupt Congress. And losses among women, even those empathizing with Anita Hill, may be minimal.
Bush can thank tough Republican questioners for painting Hill as a fantasizing, spurned woman. But the pivotal moment came when Thomas flared, "This is a high-tech lynching of an uppity black man."
Presto, Republicans shifted the heat from sex to race. Outwitted Democrats were still simmering after Tuesday's vote. "Invoking lynching and playing the race card was a shameless cover," said civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis.
Once the race card was on the table, Democrats visibly backed off. Injecting race into the brawl froze Democrats from the South with large black constituencies.
Sen. Robert Byrd, who tore up a speech endorsing Thomas after watching Hill on television, said on the Senate floor: "I believed her. Where was the racism? It was a black American woman making a charge against a black American man. Preposterous."
Losers? No. 1 was Congress, its dismal image sunk lower by the slanderous TV uproar.
Democrats were clearly outsmarted. The bitterness burst into the Senate debate when Sen. Ted Kennedy blasted Republicans' "shameful" tactics. In a veiled allusion to Kennedy's past, Sen. Arlen Specter said, "Women of America should not listen to the senator." Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Kennedy pal who later backed off the Chappaquiddick slur, said, "Anybody who believes that, I know a bridge in Massachusetts I'll sell 'em."
No wonder the Boys Club was happy to escape the scene of the crime.
But the forgotten winner in this messy epic was the American public. While the Washington establishment gripes about "politicization" of the Supreme Court, the Hill-Thomas slugfest made the public the jury. Four polls -- L.A. Times, USA Today, ABC and CBS -- showed people believed Thomas and wanted him confirmed by 2 to 1. Let cynics sneer at the televised fiasco, but the public, as was the case in Robert Bork's defeat, was boss. Whose court is it?
And what of the supposed "losers," protagonists Hill and Thomas, whose ruin was lamented by all?
Nonsense. Hill is an enduring heroine back in her classroom anonymity. Thomas has a lifetime black robe in which to outlive any taint.
"As long as Ms. Hill lives, 100 years from now, she'll be remembered as a strong person who stood up for women," said ex-Sen. William Proxmire. "Thomas won't be hurt a bit. Ten, 20 years from now, he'll be seen as a stand-up guy who fought for his reputation."
Yes, it was a squalid, stormy mess. But the process worked.
Especially for George Bush, who proved again you can't lose playing the race card.
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.