Witcover: Last-minute reprieve in the Senate Judiciary Committee

Opponents of the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh now have a week to have the FBI investigate the sexual assault allegations against him, thanks in part to the growing strength of the #MeToo movement of women decrying sexual assault and harassment. It has Republicans thinking more than ever about its impact in the approaching midterm elections.

The decision will enable efforts to secure testimony from a purported eyewitness to the attack on Christine Blasey Ford named Mark Judge, who she says was an accomplice in the assault on her when they were teenagers.

The delay on confirmation recalls the rush to judgment 27 years ago when the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed Clarence Thomas in another searing assessment of sexual offense against a testifying woman.

Then, the committee came down on the side of the nominee, a black man who angrily and emotionally denied the accusation of black college professor Anita Hill, a former Thomas employee at a federal agency. In that case, too, a witness who was poised to substantiate Ms. Hill's allegations was not heard from.

Anita Hill has become a kind of icon of justice denied among members of the mushrooming #MeToo movement.

The sensational Thomas hearings had the added explosive element of racial discrimination, as pleaded by the nominee. From the very outset, he played the race card in self-defense, saying he would not "provide the rope for my own lynching" or submit "to be further humiliated" by answering "roving questions of what goes on in the most intimate parts of my private life."

Mr. Thomas went on to call the hearings "a travesty" and "a circus," as well as "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves."

The chairman of that earlier Judiciary Committee was Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who had another black woman named Angela Wright on hand to testify against Mr. Thomas. But he never called her when she changed her mind about speaking out. Long afterward, Thomas critics mused that Mr. Thomas would not have been confirmed had she been heard.

In her calm but riveting testimony Thursday, Ms. Ford said both Mr. Kavanaugh and Mr. Judge were "extremely inebriated," when she was pushed her into the bedroom. They followed and locked the door, she testified, whereupon Mr. Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed and tried to disrobe her. Her most terrifying moment, she said, was when Mr. Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming. "I thought that Brett was going to accidentally kill me," she said.

The failure of the Republican committee chairman, Charles Grassley of Iowa, to subpoena Mr. Judge to give his version of the story was seized by Democratic ranking member, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, and other Democratic committee members as the core of their protest. They also demanded that Mr. Grassley call for an FBI investigation, which he said was not necessary inasmuch as the committee staff had inquired into the matter.

But intervention by GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona on Friday, in the interest of clarity as well as curtailing partisan mayhem on the committee, produced the deal whereby the FBI has a week to investigate before a full Senate vote on the nomination.

In the same manner in which Mr. Thomas 27 years earlier aggressively attacked the Biden-chaired committee, Mr. Kavanaugh had abandoned his earlier restrained demeanor and assaulted the Democrats on the Grassley-chaired committee, charging it with turning his confirmation hearing into "a national disgrace."

The nominee angrily alleged that the Democrats had "replaced advise and consent with search and destroy." And Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina echoed Mr. Kavanaugh, saying the Democrats were "legitimatizing the most despicable thing" he had seen in his Senate career.

But it's said that those who don't learn from history are destined to repeat it. The 11th-hour decision engineered by Mr. Flake may save the Senate Judiciary Committee from a rerun of the earlier Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill fiasco that in a sense was an early midwife of today's #MeToo groundswell.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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