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Anita Hill & Clarence Thomas Seen Through Oral History

Anita Hill

Anita Hill

On June 27 1991, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement. By early July, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, the only African-American on the short list. Civil rights groups were reluctant to oppose an African-American and Thomas was more appealing to conservatives. The nominee also had a sponsor, Senator John Danforth (R-MO), who was working with Senator Ted Kennedy on the civil rights bill, so this checked some of Kennedy’s critical outbursts.

In September, as the nomination hearing progressed, Anita Hill talked with Senate Judiciary Committee staffers, and then later, the FBI about her alleged sexual harassment by Thomas. On the 27th, the Judiciary Committee voted 7-7 on the nomination and sent it to a floor vote.

The press broke the Anita Hill story on October 5, and Hill was able to get her story told in front of the Judiciary Committee in a four-day session. Kennedy played a small role in negotiating with Hill’s witnesses, but he had little to say but for a short defense of Hill’s character.

Meanwhile, a White House working group headed by Kenneth Duberstein with Fred McClure publicly depicted Thomas as a man who came from humble beginnings to become a conservative who is still sympathetic to the interests of women and minorities.

In the end, Thomas won the nomination by a narrow vote of 52-48.

Here is what we found in both the George H.W. Bush and Edward Kennedy Oral History Projects, and each project illustrates very well the opposing viewpoints in this contentious hearing:

George H.W. Bush Project

Frederick McClure (Assistant for Legislative Affairs for President George H.W. Bush):

That is exactly what happened with Clarence Thomas, except we added another element to it, which was the whole Anita Hill, sexual harassment. But it was still the same thing, Oh, this guy’s even black and he’s going to take away affirmative action so we can’t put him on the Court. On top of that he has statements that says he is opposed to affirmative action. He hadn’t been writing, though, because he hadn’t been on the Court of Appeals long enough to have established a record. So all of his pedigree, if you will, in terms of record had come from his short service either at Education—Education? Yes, I think it was Education or at EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], which was his biggest role before going on to the Court of Appeals. And that time was so short he hadn’t written a whole lot...

Clarence made the decision personally to do the famous speech where he talked about the high-tech lynching. He did that because I think he just finally got pissed, and I couldn’t hold him back anymore, and he decided he was going to tell them what he thought. And that wasn’t scripted...

That was him just finally—Clarence is a very religious guy and I think he reached the point where, in our conversations then and afterwards, he kind of shifted it to somebody else’s hands and responsibility—somebody much higher than either one of us—in terms of whether or not—And it was kind of, Now that I have the chance, I need to say this. And I need to say this because it’s the right thing to do and if I don’t do what I believe is the right thing to do now when they are attacking my character—which is an unfounded attack on my character—then I’m not living up to those things that I believe in. And if that costs me being on the Supreme Court, which I didn’t ask for in the first place, then okay...

And he just let them have it. It was powerful, too. Let me tell you, it was powerful. I couldn’t have written that. That’s not something you could practice. It’s not like an opening statement. It’s not something that you could talk about. It’s not an answer where you do all these nuances and miss these words, and yes, you can say this word, but if you say that word it leads you down that path. And make sure you say this word because that will make that Senator feel good, but at the same time it won’t piss off this Senator on the other side who has a very different opinion about this issue than do you as well as a person down the dives. It came from his heart.

John H. Sununu (Chief of Staff for President George H.W. Bush):

There was almost no controversy. Having gotten a smooth confirmation with David [Souter], the President didn’t have that albatross hanging over and so nobody ever thought there would be a controversy in confirming Clarence Thomas.

I told another story last night that I’ll tell again. Clarence really has a wonderful sense of humor and we flew him up to Portland because the President was at Kennebunk. I drove up to pick him up and we were coming back down and we’re talking about what the President might say. I was trying to relax him and he was really as tight as I have ever seen him. We get very close to the entrance of the compound and I say, Clarence, there are going to be about two dozen, three dozen, five dozen, 100 reporters there, you know, because they know something is up and we want to get you in without them recognizing you. So I took off my glasses and I said, “Put my glasses on so when they look in the car they’ll think you’re me.” He looks at me for about a minute and bursts into this huge laugh, and he was relaxed from then on in. But you know, of all the appointments a President or a Governor has every made to the Court that I have been intimately aware of, I have to tell you, that Clarence Thomas has performed on the Court exactly as his appointer thought he would perform on the Court.

I remind everybody all the time that when the confirmation hearings were over, and I think these numbers are exact, 65% of the country supported Clarence Thomas, 25% of the country supported Anita Hill and 10% was undecided. It was the press over the ensuing year that really turned those numbers around...

Nothing had come up. But fiction never shows up in the vetting and I am absolutely convinced in my heart that Anita Hill had said something in the past, I can’t remember the lady judge that became her—the one who pushed her into this cauldron—and it just snowballed on Anita Hill and what was fictional became fact in her mind. There were enough other nonconfirmable incidents and events and data from her participation—she had Oklahoma, which really absolutely convinced me in my heart that whatever might have been there was an absolutely trivial situation that she had blown into a monstrosity...

We sent people to Oklahoma, we sent FBI everywhere. This was absolutely vetted top to bottom as intensely as any—that process is automatic on one of these things. Absolutely automatic. Let me remind you of what really swayed us. When we talked to people who knew only Anita Hill, some of them supported Anita Hill. When we talked to anybody who knew both Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, unanimously they supported Clarence Thomas. Not a single, single, person who knew them both, in the contest, supported Anita Hill.

Edward Kennedy Oral History Project

Senator Edward Kennedy

We had the sequence of events where we were going to vote on him, and then we heard about Anita Hill. Anita Hill started earlier, before we voted, but it didn’t bubble up. It didn’t come to the attention of the committee. I was just looking through my notes to get the exact time. It did not bubble up, for some reason...

What had happened was Danforth was very clever in getting an agreement about when we were going to vote. So we had the final vote set, and then we came back and did the hearing. The hearing was going to be limited to Anita Hill, and they had [Howell] Heflin and [Patrick] Leahy versus Hatch and [Arlen] Specter. And the order in which they appeared worked to Thomas’ advantage—I think he went first, and then he came back and rebutted...

The vote got locked in, no matter what was going to happen, because Danforth and the civil rights people wondered if there was going to be a question about when that Civil Rights Bill was going to come up. They gave the assurance that it would be quicker if we got the vote locked in, and so Danforth played that card, and he did it very effectively. That was a major factor in rushing it through. Lowery told me personally that he wanted to be able to look at the Supreme Court and see a black face up there. Civil rights groups wanted to get this Civil Rights Bill passed, and they thought they couldn’t get the support from their community as they had with Bork. That just wasn’t going to happen, and as a result, we found out that a number of the southern Senators who had been with us earlier were not with us on this one...

As for the idea of the order of going ahead, and then the attack on Hill, I was just looking over this note saying that the Harris poll showed that at the end of the hearings, 56% believed Thomas and only 33% believed Hill. That was a direct result, I think, of the order and the time it was laid out, and the very strong attack on Hill. That’s the real result of the strategy in the nomination process.

This is about the time, too, of the Florida trial of [William Kennedy] Smith [Senator Kennedy’s nephew], and so I didn’t ask questions in the second round. I got heavily criticized for that, people saying that I was just sitting there not asking questions, although it had been agreed earlier that we were going to have just two questioners. And I thought Leahy—since he had been a prosecutor—and Heflin—because he was a Southerner—would be the best, as they had just two on the other side. There was a lot of speculation about it, but that was agreed on, and I didn’t object because I thought they were probably the ones to do it, with Leahy being not tied to the Democratic liberal wing, certainly as much at that time as perhaps he is now. Nonetheless, that was a secondary factor.

Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY):

Clarence was sitting in the back room with Danforth looking so down. I went in and I said, Look, did you do any of this? He said, I’m sick to my stomach. I can’t even breathe. I said, You had better start breathing, because if you’re just going to sit there and take this shit nd not do something, you’re doomed. That was the night he went back to his office and scribbled on a yellow legal pad and came back the next morning and called it all a high-tech lynchingand stuck it in Metzenbaum’s ear and he looked like a man possessed. Nobody touched him that day. The whole committee was watching him like this as he was talking and turning the pages, This is nothing but a high-tech black lynching. It was the worst thing I have ever seen in my entire life and I lost my marbles—and I looked like it. Vicious would be hardly the word.

Senator John Danforth R-MO (member of the Senate Judiciary Committee):

Danforth: He was very understated during Thomas.

Dr. Jim Young: Why do you suppose that was?

Danforth: I’m not sure. You can only speculate what’s in somebody’s mind. All this innuendo about Kennedy’s own life could have been part of it, but it also could have been—I was Clarence’s champion in the Senate and Kennedy had worked with me and was working with me and knew me. I think that entered into it, but I don’t know. Also I have to say this, in the Thomas travail, my problem wasn’t with Senators; my problem was with these awful groups, these just dreadful people, outside the Senate…. 

Dr. Janet Heininger: Well, let’s talk about the Thomas nomination then. You had reacted strongly about how Kennedy had handled the Bork nomination. Did that affect your view of how the Thomas nomination was being handled?

Danforth: I don’t think it particularly did. The Thomas nomination was—right off the bat those groups started attacking him. But it wasn’t all that hard until the end. It wasn’t—he was going to get confirmed. Then the weekend before the scheduled vote—I think the vote was scheduled on a Tuesday, and Saturday night Orrin Hatch called me at home and said, This is going to be on NPR [National Public Radio]. I said, oh, nobody will pay any attention to that. He said, oh yes, they will. Then, the next morning, Sunday morning, this thing hit the fan. Then it was just like a total horror show. 

I tried my best to get the Democrats to agree to hold the vote on that Tuesday, but they wouldn’t. Then the next week and a half or whatever, it’s all in the book, but that was the worst. I’ve never lived through anything like that. It wasn’t so much the Senators, they were kind of like, what do we do with this? But it was those awful people. Ralph Neas. Terrible. I have strong views on the subject...

Dr. Janet Heininger: You said in the book that it was your impression that Kennedy had been designated by [Joseph] Biden to be the representative of Anita Hill’s team. Did you have any dealings with him on that?

Danforth: There was this question of the hearings and how many witnesses. There were all these women who wanted to testify for Clarence, and that was one big issue, would they be permitted to testify? So we had meetings. I think we met in Kennedy’s office about all that. So he could well have been the person working it out, but he was not the firebrand that he was with Bork. I don’t know what other specific issues there were. Talking to Biden, and how long are these hearings going to last? Who’s going to testify when, and particularly, will those women be allowed to testify, and back and forth. I do have recollections that there were meetings in Kennedy’s office on that. He may have been the point of contact on that, but it was just a different role than the out-front vilifier of the nominee….

Heininger: When Clarence made his statement, you say in the book, he read it to you ahead of time but he had completely written it himself. He concluded by saying that he believed that this was a high-tech lynching of an uppity black… 

Danforth: Right. What happened then is, he made a statement in the morning. Then Anita Hill testified. Clarence went home…Then he showed up in our office. I guess I called him and said that we want you to testify at night. So he showed up in my office, I guess late in the afternoon. I guess she was still testifying because there was a time when he was in my office and we had almost all the lights out, maybe just one or two, it was very soft light. He was, as he was throughout this thing, just terribly upset and he said to me, You know what this is, Jack? This is a lynching. This is a high-tech lynching. I said, Well, Clarence, if you feel that way about it, when you go up to the committee, you say that. That’s what happened. 

Heininger: What effect do you think that had on the committee?

Danforth: [Long pause] I don’t think any of them had ever seen anything like that before. Senators in hearings and so on generally spend their time bullying, or they can, berating witnesses, pushing them around, holding their ground. I don’t remember there ever being a case—It’s like this, whatever that Howard Hughes’ movie was [The Aviator] that came out, if you saw that, it’s like when Howard Hughes appeared and started yelling at the Senators—[laughs]…

Heininger: All you said in the book was that the room got so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I just wondered whether you remembered the reactions on anybody’s faces, because I’ve never heard anything like that in a Senate hearing.

Danforth: I think it was very attentive. God, that was awful. I really feel sorry for this period in my years. This is really an aside, but it’s just too mean. Nothing was meaner than the Thomas thing, but this is—it’s not worth making somebody go through that.

Thurgood Marshall Jr. (Edward Kennedy Staffer):

Dr. Janet Heininger: Did you feel that Clarence Thomas was a worthy successor for your father, or would you have preferred to see someone else in that position?

Marshall: I’ve tried to come around to thinking on that. It’s hard for me to address that question in those terms, because it gets back to whoever won the last election. I don’t feel that President [George H.W.] Bush was obligated to come up with a worthy successor to my father. I believe that my party failed to put in motion a set of circumstances that would put a person in the White House who could try to do that. The Democrats who have been appointed since my father served, I think, have been noteworthy additions to that Court.

Caroline Osolinik (Judiciary Committee Staff Attorney for Senator Edward Kennedy):

The Thomas nomination was very difficult, understandably so for the African American community, because this was a President who was not going to nominate someone who was going to be a champion for civil rights. At the time that he was nominated, Thomas did not have much of a track record. I know from speaking to people like Elaine Jones with the Legal Defense Fund that it was a wrenching decision for the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], for example, to come out against him. Just as Senator Kennedy’s staking out the opposition to Robert Bork on the day he was nominated contributed to Robert Bork’s defeat, I think having a campaign against Thomas on hold for the first critical few weeks contributed significantly to his being approved.

One of the things that was the most important with respect to a nominee was to be absolutely aboveboard with anything having to do with personal allegations, so when the alleged conduct involving Anita Hill was described to me, my first reaction was that we didn’t know if it happened, and if it happened, we didn’t know whether it would rise to the level of being a Title VII employment harassment. My good friend Susan Ross, a professor at Georgetown, specializes in women’s issues and, in particular, employment issues, so I called her and asked her to get involved in trying to sort this out. She ended up being one of the principal advocates for Anita Hill, along with Charles Ogletree.

There was among some of the Democrats on the committee an ardent desire to get this over with as quickly as possible. Senator Danforth had the ability to make a huge difference in the timing of things. Timing was everything with respect to running down allegations that came in late in the process. Ultimately, after the hearing with Anita Hill, there were additional allegations that came in, and there was not an opportunity to pursue them. Who knows whether there was anything to them or not? But there was a somewhat incomplete record. I’m not opining as to who was telling a story that was closer to the truth, Anita Hill or Clarence Thomas, but it also very badly affected Anita Hill after those hearings. That was as emotional and ugly an episode as any—

Jeffrey Blattner (Edward Kennedy staffer):

It’s a very complicated story. The context, in some ways, for both the Souter nomination and the Thomas nomination, was shaped by a couple of things: One, of course, these were replacements for [William] Brennan and [Thurgood] Marshall, the two great liberal justices of that era. Second, the Senator was deeply engaged, as was I, in trying to pass what ultimately became the Civil Rights Act of 1991. It had been introduced in early 1990 and ultimately was vetoed by President [George H.W.] Bush the first, and the veto was sustained by one vote—Warren Rudman’s vote, I would add—in October, I believe, of 1990. The principal Republican sponsor of that legislation, both in ’90—well, in later 1990 and then in 1991—was Jack Danforth, who, of course, was Clarence Thomas’s sponsor in the Senate, as Warren Rudman had been for David Souter.

Bryan Craig is a Senior Researcher for the Presidential Oral History Program

Date edited: 04/28/2016 (12:20PM)


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