Doubting Thomas


WITH YESTERDAY'S publication of "Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas," American blood will come to a new boil over the most rending he-said/she-said conflict of our time. But not necessarily because of this gripping book's revelations about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas.

The authors, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson of the Wall Street Journal, do produce named sources who both corroborate Ms. Hill's testimony and detail other incidents in which a porno-fixated Clarence Thomas hit on the more vulnerable (which is to say, black) women in his employ. This is unlikely, however, to shock a country where a majority tell pollsters they already believe that Clarence Thomas committed perjury.

The real scoops in this meticulously reported book lie elsewhere. "Strange Justice" uncovers a White House dirty-tricks team that masked Clarence Thomas' extremist ideology and smeared Anita Hill as a psychotic by clandestinely (and expensively) publicizing fake personas for both of them.

And it depicts a white male Congress so easily cowed by accusations of racism that its members didn't even question that organizations mounting an "ostensibly grass-roots African-American campaign" for the nominee had been formed by the white religious right and financed by Republicans.

In the book's surprising narrative, the iconoclastic Clarence Thomas is no abject villain, and Anita Hill is a reluctant witness. Ms. Hill's would-be protectors on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Edward Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum, are sleepwalkers, and her nastiest antagonists, Orrin Hatch and Alan Simpson, are bit players.

Two other senators, central to the tale, do not get off so lightly: John Danforth, the Republican who served as the White House's point man, and Joseph Biden, the Democratic Judiciary Committee chairman who could have aired most of the evidence in "Strange Justice" three autumns ago but did not.

Sen. Danforth, an ordained minister, likes to depict himself as God's servant and has written a new book of his own ("Resurrection") about the Thomas hearings that may be the most lachrymose public display of sanctimony and guilt by an American clergyman since Arthur Dimmesdale bared his breast in "The Scarlet Letter."

Even in the unlikely event that history deems Clarence Thomas, his protege, a great jurist, Sen. Danforth still has much to feel guilty about. In "Strange Justice," he makes ruthless efforts to slur Ms. Hill with unsubstantiated tales of rogue pubic hairs, and, to his own aides' revulsion, spreads psychiatric diagnoses of "erotomania" that conform neither to Ms. Hill's biography nor to that rare condition's symptoms.

Sen. Biden was Sen. Danforth's all-too-eager tool. The chairman rushed the hearings at the Republicans' request, suppressing crucial evidence and witnesses in the process. As the Hill-Thomas showdown neared, he had top aides tend to his own PR rather than prepare for the hearings. But even as Joe Biden kept ugly testimony about the nominee's private life off limits at Sen. Danforth's urging, the chairman applied another standard to Ms. Hill, who was fair game for any character assassin with a hearing-room microphone.

What were Sen. Biden's motives? Desperate to be liked by all, the senator tried any path of least resistance that might allow Ms. Hill's incendiary accusations to die quietly. He still looks back on his performance as a publicity coup. "Most voters can't name their own senator," he brags to Ms. Mayer and Ms. Abramson. "But now everywhere I go, I get recognized."

No other committee member behaved any better; most were ill informed and eager to stay that way, lest they attract controversy. Most journalists were equally passive about digging too deeply into a racially and sexually charged Pandora's box. So now the Supreme Court is stuck with a bitter jurist of dubious integrity who lives a lie in even his jurisprudence -- an anti-affirmative-action zealot who owes his job to affirmative action.

The whole story is enough to make you nostalgic for Watergate, when the press and Congress helped the country dodge a bullet. Remember the old catch phrase "The system worked"? "Strange Justice" is the definitive proof that this time it did not.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.


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