Who to believe Three years after Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, the nation is still debating . . .

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Three years after her televised testimony riveted the nation and cast a still-looming shadow over the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment recapture the spotlight today with new revelations by women who say they could have supported her claims but were prevented from testifying before the Senate.

The disclosures appear in a much-anticipated book, "Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas," which is excerpted in today's Wall Street Journal and will be featured tonight on ABC's "Turning Point."

Information about the book has been tightly controlled by its publisher, Houghton Mifflin, to prevent leaks before its publication tomorrow. But interest in it indicates just how strongly Ms. Hill's charges -- and the issue of sexual harassment -- continue to resonate in the public psyche.

"You can stop any dinner party in town by saying two words, 'Anita,' 'Clarence,' " said Michel McQueen, the "Turning Point" correspondent who interviewed Ms. Hill, supporting witnesses, senators and others involved in the October 1991 hearings on Justice Thomas' appointment to the high court. "The issues they raised are very raw and very explosive -- the issue of race, the issue of sex, the role of women in the workplace. It touches on all of these hot-button issues."

The "buzz" over the book has been building for more than a year, ever since its authors, Wall Street Journal reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, wrote a scathing review for New Yorker magazine on a competing book on the Hill/Thomas controversy. Last month, they won a coveted nomination for a National Book Award, the first time in memory that a book not yet published or sent in advance to reviewers was nominated.

The first looks

Houghton Mifflin, which made exclusive agreements with the Journal and ABC News to give them first print- and electronic-media rights to the book, sent reviewers copies today. "Strange Justice" will arrive in bookstores tomorrow.

The book and TV program detail behind-the-scenes maneuvering that kept several women with stories supporting Ms. Hill from testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

These women appear on tonight's program: Angela Wright, Justice Thomas' former public relations director at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, tells of how he asked her the size of her breasts. Another former co-worker, Kaye Savage, says he displayed a nude centerfold in his kitchen; yet another, Sukari Hardnett, said she would hide in a friend's office to get away from his overtures.

Ms. Mayer tells "Turning Point" it became a "game of chicken" in which Republicans told Democrats that if such statements were aired, they would counter with allegations of their own about Ms. Hill's character.

And, so, Ms. Hill's charges were the only ones aired publicly during the hearings. Under the glare of the television lights and before the all-male committee, she testified that Justice Thomas joked about pubic hair on a Coke can and talked about pornographic movies with group sex, bestiality and rape scenes.

"It's a dramatic, point-counterpoint story, which is why people continue to return to it," said Marvin Kalb, a former broadcast correspondent and currently visiting professor of the press and public policy at George Washington University.

"But, what difference is it going to make? The answer is none," he added. "This man is on the Supreme Court and, unless he decides he can't take it any more and becomes a Tibetan monk, he's on it for life."

Nonetheless, the book is expected to get plenty of attention after today's first looks at its contents as follow-up stories and reviews begin to run. CNN talk show host Larry King will interview Ms. Mayer, a senior writer for the Journal, and Ms. Abramson, the Journal's deputy Washington bureau chief, tomorrow night.

Of course, no one but Ms. Hill, currently a University of Oklahoma law professor on a leave of absence, and Justice Thomas, her former boss at the EEOC, will ever know exactly what transpired between them. But, interestingly, public opinion has shifted over time, with polls indicating that more people believe her version now than they did at the time of the 1991 hearings.

After two days of testimony, a Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 55 percent of the people surveyed did not believe Ms. Hill while 34 percent did. A year later, however, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed 44 percent believed her and 34 percent believed Justice Thomas.

Media critic Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, attributes that shift to people growing increasingly comfortable with publicly discussing the formerly taboo subject of sexual harassment.

"A lot of people initially were put off by her coming forward. It was hard to listen to what she said. It was gross," Mr. Miller said of the sexually explicit testimony. "But that initial feeling of revulsion has passed. People now have thought about it and realized women don't have to take this anymore."

But others say this change in public opinion shows that what's being debated now is not the actual Hill-Thomas relationship of so many years ago, but the broader issue of sexual harassment.

"These two people have come to represent larger issues," says David Brock, a conservative writer whose own book, "The Real Anita Hill: The Untold Story," was published in May 1993 and became a best seller. "The further you get from the facts of the case, the testimony and the witnesses, the better Anita Hill's case looks. Anita Hill as a symbol is a more compelling figure than she was as a witness."

Mr. Brock has been involved in a running dispute with Ms. Mayer and Ms. Abramson that somewhat parallels the Hill/Thomas issue, a sort of he said/she said/she said of the printed word.

The first volley came when Mr. Brock's book hit the stands, portraying Ms. Hill as a vindictive, sex-obsessed left-wing radical. The book accused her of fabricating the harassment charge with the help of feminists out to get the conservative judge.

Predictable response

While the book was well reviewed in the New York Times and the Washington Post, much of the response fell along predictable lines: Conservative pundits George Will and Rush Limbaugh embraced it, while liberal counterparts Ellen Goodman, Anthony Lewis and Anna Quindlen denounced it.

But the review that drew the most attention was the six-page deconstruction written by Ms. Mayer and Ms. Abramson for the New Yorker. Although Ms. Mayer and Ms. Abramson disclosed in the piece that they were working on their own book about Anita Hill, some saw the review as an attempt to discredit a competing writer.

Mr. Brock returned with a seven-page rebuttal, "Jane and Jill and Anita Hill: At the New Yorker, they don't know jack," in the August 1993 issue of the American Spectator, the conservative magazine for which he had first written about Ms. Hill as "a bit nutty, a bit slutty." In his rebuttal, he picked apart their picking apart of his book.

Now, he is fairly chomping at the bit to get his hands on their book.

"Chances are pretty good I will write something about it," Mr. Brock said in a telephone interview.

The debate over who lied and who told the truth no doubt will continue without resolution. But the hearings had nearly immediate impact, most would agree: The next year, record numbers of women were swept into office, helped in part by the outrage many felt over how a committee of white male senators treated Ms. Hill.

"The Year of the Woman," 1992, produced a Senate with six female members and a House with 47 female representatives. Since that time, complaints of sexual harassment have been leveled at everyone from run-of-the-mill middle managers to President Clinton.

"It's had a huge effect," said Peg Yorkin, head of the Fund for a rTC Feminist Majority, an activist organization. "And it hasn't died away yet."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°