Witcover: 27 years later, echoes of Anita Hill

The allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have generated a revisiting of the 1991 confirmation hearings on Clarence Thomas, who reached the court by overcoming different charges of sexual misconduct raised against him.

In that case, a central figure was a black woman named Anita Hill who alleged that she was fired by Mr. Thomas from after rebuffing sexual overtures and comments by him.


Ms. Hill had gone on to become a well-regarded college professor whose charges against Mr. Thomas soon were said to be substantiated by another black woman at the same agency named Angela Wright, who was poised to testify, but in the end Ms. Wright was not called.

Caught in the middle then was Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He summoned Ms. Hill, had federal marshals take her deposition and give her a subpoena to appear at his Senate hearing. But it was far from clear at the outset that she would be willing to do so.


Mr. Biden had already drawn sharp Republican fire for his chairing of previous Senate hearings on the Supreme Court confirmation of GOP darling Robert Bork. It was denied by a record 42-58 vote, with Mr. Biden voting no.

This time around, the stakes for Mr. Biden were also high. Mr. Thomas himself was not highly regarded for his intellect and judicial record. And he was seeking to replace a Democratic political icon in the retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall, a father of the civil rights movement.

Up to this point, Ms. Hill had asked that she remain anonymous, and Mr. Biden had agreed to honor her wishes. At the same time, he said he was determined to demonstrate that the Senate took such allegations seriously and promised a thorough investigation.

From the start, Mr. Thomas, who is also black, alluded to racial overtones in the hearing. "I will not provide the rope for my own lynching or for further humiliation," he declared. "I am not going to engage in discussions, nor will I submit to roving questions of what goes on in the most intimate parts of my privacy, and they will remain just that, private."

Mr. Biden assured Mr. Thomas he would not be asked to do so. But he added that "with respect to Professor Hill, I intend to focus on the general nature of your relationship with her, her responsibilities in your office and the environment in which she worked." When he asked her about the nature of Mr. Thomas's remarks to her, she replied: "They were very ugly, they were very dirty, they were disgusting."

As for Mr. Thomas, he called the hearing "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves ... and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree."

Leading Republicans on the committee were determined not to let the Thomas confirmation drag on and develop into an ugly, racially tainted detriment to their party. But the hearings continued over a long weekend. In the end Angela Wright never testified, amid much confusion over why not. Most Republicans on the committee were opposed to calling her.

Another former Thomas employee at the equal opportunity agency, Rose Jourdain, was said to be prepared to back up Ms. Wright's testimony regarding Mr. Thomas' unwanted advances, but she too was never called. Mr. Biden later said that in the end Ms. Wright "chose not to come" and that "there's a myth that's grown up that we somehow denied her. We had her in town to testify, we expected her to testify, we prepared her to testify; she chose not to."


Asked whether he thought the outcome would have been different had she testified, Mr. Biden said: "I don't think so, because her whole statement was published. ... It was not that her allegations weren't known. Some people thought it would undo the case if she turned out to be a weak witness."

In any event, the experience of the Anita Hill episode argues persuasively for the Senate to take adequate time to find and get out all the facts in any confirmation for the Supreme Court, especially when the stakes for the country are so high, as they are now in the Kavanaugh case.

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