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‘A high-tech lynching’: How Brett Kavanaugh took a page from the Clarence Thomas playbook

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard from Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas on Oct. 11, 1991, during the first day of his reopened confirmation hearings. (Video: CSPAN)

Shortly after finishing five days of testimony before the Senate panel weighing his Supreme Court nomination, Clarence Thomas headed for the beach.

“I desperately needed a break,” Thomas wrote in his memoir.

With his wife, Virginia, Thomas drove to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. From there, they took a ferry to New Jersey.

“The summer tourist season was over and the beach was deserted and quiet,” Thomas wrote, “but I found no peace there.” He had a nagging feeling that “my opponents were still holding something in reserve.”

He was right.

The day after returning to their home in Alexandria, Va., two FBI agents knocked on the front door.

“They flashed their credentials and started asking questions before I could close the door behind them,” Thomas wrote.

The first question: “Do you know a woman named Anita Hill?”

Hill had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Indignant at the sexual harassment allegations the FBI agents then laid out while they sat around his kitchen table, Thomas immediately saw his predicament through a racial lens. And he knew he had to respond forcefully.

In a chapter titled, “Invitation to a Lynching,” Thomas wrote:

I didn’t care whether I ever sat on the Supreme Court, but I wasn’t going to let what little my family and I had cobbled together to be so wantonly smashed. My enemies wanted nothing more than for me to go quietly. I, on the other hand, owed it to my family and the memory of my grandparents and forebears not to self-destruct but to confront them with the truth.

On Thursday, America saw similar fury from Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh as he angrily denied allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, calling his confirmation process a “national disgrace” during testimony before a Senate committee. He testified after his accuser Christine Blasey Ford described an alleged sexual assault by Kavanaugh at a drunken Maryland house party in the early 1980s when they were in high school.

“You may defeat me in the final vote, but you’ll never get me to quit, ever,” Kavanaugh said.

No women served on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. The ugly Anita Hill hearings changed that.

Kavanaugh defended his innocence again and again.

“Listen to the people I know. Listen to the people who have known me my whole life. Listen to the people I’ve grown up with and worked with and played with and coached with and dated and taught and gone to games with and had beers with. And listen to the witnesses who were allegedly at this event 30 years ago," he said.

The comparisons with the Thomas/Hill hearing was inevitable.

In 1991, the Senate Judiciary Committee reopened Thomas’s confirmation to hear Hill’s sexual harassment allegations and the nominee’s response. The lurid testimony that followed — about penis sizes, breasts, pubic hairs and pornography — captivated the nation, with open arguments in homes and workplaces over who was telling the truth.

Following Hill’s testimony, Thomas angrily addressed the committee, saying:

Senator, I would like to start by saying unequivocally, uncategorically that I deny each and every single allegation against me today that suggested in any way that I had conversations of a sexual nature or about pornographic material with Anita Hill, that I ever attempted to date her, that I ever had any personal sexual interest in her, or that I in any way ever harassed her. Second, and I think a more important point, I think that this today is a travesty. I think that it is disgusting. I think that this hearing should never occur in America. This is a case in which this sleaze, this dirt was searched for by staffers of members of this committee, was then leaked to the media, and this committee and this body validated it and displayed it in prime time over our entire Nation. How would any member on this committee or any person in this room or any person in this country would like sleaze said about him or her in this fashion or this dirt dredged up and this gossip and these lies displayed in this manner? How would any person like it?

And then he uttered the most repeated and analyzed portion of his defense:

This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow 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.

Circus. Lynched. Destroyed.

Those words set the tone for how Thomas saved his nomination, a defense that was later deemed shrewd and “well designed” by communication and rhetoric experts.

In an 18-page analysis of Thomas' testimony, scholars from the University of Missouri dissected what they called Thomas’s “image repair strategy.”

“While his utterances did not conclusively prove that Anita Hill’s accusations were false,” the researchers wrote, “he did manage to secure confirmation.”

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Three ways, the researchers said.

The first: Denial.

Indicating his candor, he conceded that although he is not “a perfect person," [but that] "I have not done what she has alleged, and I still do know know what I could possibly have done to cause her to make these allegations.” Thus, Judge Thomas did not attempt to argue, for example, that Professor Hill has misinterpreted his actions, or that she welcomed them at the time but later decided to accuse him of sexual harassment. He directly, unequivocally, and categorically denied that he did anything wrong, and in fact declared that he cannot even imagine anything that he did which could have been misunderstood to provoke these charges.

And without attacking Hill directly, Thomas offered a defense that seemed to resonate with senators and an electorate that wasn’t yet well versed in workplace sexual harassment and how women often conceal their experiences. Thomas testified that she never complained about his behavior to him, his staff or mutual friends.

“The clear implication to be drawn here,” the researchers wrote, “is that no sexual harassment must have happened because she had the opportunity to object, but didn’t.”

The second way: A quick bolster of his image — a shift from lout to victim.

Thomas repeatedly spoke of how he had dedicated his life to fighting against the very type of allegations being leveled at him, that he had treated Hill well and recommended her for jobs, and that he had been able “with the help of others and with the help of God, to defy poverty, avoid prison, overcome segregation, bigotry, racism and obtain one of the finest educations available in this country.”

“As if the confidential allegations themselves were not enough,” Thomas testified, “this apparently calculated public disclosure has caused me, my family, and my friends enormous pain and great harm. I have never, in all my life, felt such hurt, such pain, such agony. My family and I have been done a grave and irreparable injustice.”

The third way: Attacking his accusers and the process.

Here is where Thomas was perhaps the most shrewd. Though many thought he would go after Hill, he instead went after the process:

I have endured this ordeal for 103 days. Reporters sneaking into my garage to examine books I read. Reporters and interest groups swarming over divorce papers, looking for dirt. Unnamed people starting preposterous and damaging rumors. Calls all over the country specifically requesting dirt. This is not American. This is Kafka-esque. It has got to stop. It must stop for the benefit of future nominees, and our country. Enough is enough.

And he said he would not “provide rope for my own lynching.”

Though Hill and Thomas are both black, Thomas was able to make race an issue by turning the focus to the all-male, all-white Judiciary Committee and other powerful — and white — senators, all of whom were extremely sensitive to charges of racism, whether toward Hill or him.

“Thomas' decision to attack his accusers (in the Senate) deflected attention away from charges of sexual harassment (Thomas allegedly victimizing Hill) to charges of racism (the Senators victimizing Thomas),” the Missouri researchers wrote. “If the Senate voted against Thomas, that could appear to prove they were acting as racists. But if the Senate confirmed Thomas, that would suggest that they weren’t racist. This means that Thomas made his confirmation the means to an end desired by the Senate.”

There had been a “flame of anger burning inside” Thomas before his testimony, he wrote in his memoir.

“The man was waiting for me there,” he wrote, “and this time, with God’s help, I would be ready for him.”

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