Clarence Thomas is a symbol of privilege, a black man on the rise in white America in a critical time during the 1970s and ’80s, who assumed power and sought to use it his own personal ends.
Joe Biden said he believed Anita Hill’s story about being the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of Mr Thomas. She had previously worked as his assistant at two federal agencies—The Office of Civil Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Sitting smugly in his chair, now Justice Thomas said into the television cameras at the critical moment that “as a black man in America, I consider this a high-tech lynching”. He was responding to the details in the testimony given by Ms Hill about how at meetings which were set up ostensibly to discuss work, he wanted to talk about sex. Except, in this case, the accuser was a black woman who had reluctantly agreed to face the lights, after a friend whom she had told of her ordeal 12 years earlier came forward to spill the beans, following Mr Thomas’s nomination for a seat on the US Supreme Court.
Biden said he believed her story, but the hearings went on such that she felt he had allowed the Republicans to railroad the process. He called her years later to say he was sorry. But she said he never apologised, nor took responsibility for the conduct of the proceedings. She accepted his call, and the apparent sincerity with which he made it. She accused him of not calling other witnesses who would corroborate her story. And of causing harm to other victims of sexual harassment and gender violence. Now she says she would vote for him to be the President of the United States. She would love the opportunity to work with and for him.
She was a bright country girl who never adjusted to the ways of big city life and lights. That’s what you get from reading the story of her experiences with Clarence Thomas and at the congressional hearings. Those were still in the early days of CNN’s game-changing wall-to-wall coverage of events in the US, right up there with the OJ Simpson trial. She was a study in composure, often frustrating in restraint and understatement, with an apparent fixation on not ever saying the wrong thing, devoid of anxiety or pathos even, bereft of righteous indignation and plain speaking, almost to the point of timidity.
Not many of us are capable of that kind of redemptive, rejuvenating graciousness. She seems to come right out of any number of the portraits presented in David Brooks’ The Road to Character, or in Peggy Noonan’s The Time of Our Lives.
This was October 1991. The #MeToo movement wasn’t yet a thought. Writing about the matter at the time, the celebrated newspaper columnist Ellen Goodman had this to say, among many other conclusions: “To accept Anita Hill’s story, you only had to believe that Clarence Thomas would lie to salvage his honour in front of the country and his family. To accept Thomas’s denial, you had to believe that Hill was a psychopath.” She wrote four columns analysing the proceedings.
In Speaking Truth to Power, the book she published in 1997 about her experience during the hearing, Hill reported on one of several conversations with Biden. “Aw, kiddo, I feel for you,” he told her over the phone as the hearings were getting under way. “I wish I weren’t the chairman, I’d come to be your lawyer.” After realising there was no useful information from that discussion, she reported imagining him “flashing his instant smile to convince both us of that the experience would be agreeable”. Where process was concerned, she said, “I was at a complete disadvantage.”
She would say later that the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing her complaint had no experience in, or rules for, evaluating it. There were also no rules for conducting the proceedings, and members chose instead to make them up as the hearing progressed. Biden had said at the outset that the committee was convened to hear evidence of the charges of sexual misconduct by Thomas, but chose instead to deviate both from guidelines established by the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee and from such procedures developed in the courts for hearing such claims.
Growing up in rural Oklahoma in the second half of the 1950s, Anita Hill went to Oklahoma State University and then to Yale Law School. She was a member of the law faculty at Brandeis University, and also lectures on social policy and women’s studies. She has recounted some of the influences on her life which have positioned her to now turn the pages to the point at which she will both vote for Biden and is willing to work for him.
By the economic, social and cultural standards of most Americans, she said, her family was poor. “Yet I never knew it, for our lives were rich with family, friends, God and nature. Even now as I look back, I do not remember poverty because we lacked the kinds of hopelessness and despair that choke many of the poor today.”
This is evidence of an uncommon grace, a study in the essence of forgiveness, of setting aside past hurts, of feelings of resentment and injustice.