By Karen Tumulty and Kevin Merida
Thursday, October 21, 2010; A1
The decision by the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to confront the woman who accused him of sexual harassment two decades ago has stirred up old and painful questions that have never fully been put to rest.
In an early morning voice mail Oct. 9, Ginni Thomas implored Anita Hill to recant the account that turned Clarence Thomas's 1991 confirmation hearings into a national sensation.
Why Ginni Thomas did this is unclear. Hill stands by her account, and she told ABC News and the New York Times that she found it offensive that Ginni Thomas asked her to apologize.
More mystifying, even to friends and associates of the Thomases, is the timing: After 19 years, the collective national memory of Ginni Thomas sitting in a Senate hearing room in a cheery plaid jacket, quietly wiping tears from her eyes, had faded. In its place was emerging a new Thomas, a woman familiar in conservative circles for her decades of activism.
Her high-profile political work is unusual for the spouse of a Supreme Court justice. With hundreds of thousands of dollars in anonymous contributions at her disposal, she is becoming a political and intellectual force as the head of a new group called Liberty Central, which is aimed at turning the splintered and raucous tea party movement into something coherent and lasting.
She has also been establishing a public identity, speaking out on cable news shows and at rallies.
The morning she made the call to Hill, Thomas was receiving another kind of attention on the front page of the Times.
Its story questioned whether her new prominence and acceptance of large, anonymous contributions for Liberty Central - including two gifts of $500,000 and $50,000 - might raise conflict-of-interest questions for her husband.
Whether Ginni Thomas expected her call to Hill to become public is not known. But it had at least one consequence that she probably did not anticipate: It prompted a former girlfriend of her husband's, who had kept her silence since the 1991 controversy, to say publicly that she found Hill's testimony credible.
Lillian McEwen, a retired administrative law judge who said she dated Clarence Thomas from 1979 through the mid-1980s, told The Washington Post: "The Clarence I know was certainly capable of not only doing the things that Anita Hill said he did, but it would be totally consistent with the way he lived his personal life then."
Those who know Ginni Thomas say she has never gotten over the controversy, and she had said publicly that she hoped Hill would apologize someday.
In the aftermath of the confirmation hearings, she dedicated herself to repairing her husband's image. In a first-person article for People magazine published shortly after he was seated on the court, his wife likened Hill to the spurned woman in the movie "Fatal Attraction" and added: "I always believed she was probably someone in love with my husband and never got what she wanted."
In 1993, Ginni Thomas attended a book party for author David Brock upon the publication of his book "The Real Anita Hill," which raised questions about Hill's credibility. When he admitted in a subsequent book, "Blinded by the Right," that his Hill reporting had been slanted, he became a pariah among conservatives. A concerned Thomas left a voice mail for Brock saying that she was praying for him and that she hoped they could still be friends.
And in November 1999, after Washington Post reporter Tom Jackman wrote a story about a man who had been falsely accused of indecent exposure, Jackman received a call from a distraught woman who said it reminded her of the ordeal she and her husband had suffered.
"My husband's name is Clarence Thomas," she said.
"She's still affected by it. I just pray and hope she can find peace with this situation," said conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who was once an aide to Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "This is not even about the justice. It's about his wife. This is Ginni Thomas. It was obviously something she needed to do."
In a statement released by her publicist, Ginni Thomas said her call to Hill was an effort to extend "an olive branch to her after all these years, in hopes that we could ultimately get past what happened so long ago."
But there was more grievance than reconciliation in the message Thomas left at Hill's office at 7:31 a.m on that Saturday.
"Good morning, Anita Hill. It's Ginni Thomas," it said. "I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband."
It continued: "So give it some thought. And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. Okay, have a good day."
Hill said she initially thought the call might be a prank, and she asked the FBI to look into it. Law enforcement sources said the FBI is not investigating because there is no apparent federal crime.
Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report.