In 1991, George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas for a seat on the Supreme Court, just five days after civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall announced that he was retiring after 24 years. Thomas, despite an impressive résumé, had served as a federal judge for only 19 months. None of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee for the Federal Judiciary members rated him “well-qualified.”
Near the end of his hearing, a former employee of Thomas’s named Anita Hill came forward with sensational allegations of sexual harassment. The testimony took three days, with the hearing broadcast live. The nation was shocked, transfixed and deeply divided.
On April 16, HBO will debut “Confirmation,” a movie starring Kerry Washington as Hill and Wendell Pierce as Thomas. Conservatives have already called the screenplay biased, portraying Hill as courageous, Thomas as disingenuous and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. as inept.
The subject is still a raw wound for Thomas: “Mere confirmation, even to the Supreme Court, seemed pitifully small compensation for what had been done to me,” he writes in his 2007 memoir “My Grandfather’s Son.”
A look at the process, in the words of those who were there.
The late Republican senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in his 2000 autobiography “Passion for Truth”: Bush announced that Thomas was the “best qualified” nominee he could find for the high court and that “the fact he was black and a minority had nothing to do with this.” Immediately I said publicly that Thomas was not the best-qualified nominee available and that race was a factor — and properly so. I did not object to Thomas’s nomination because I thought he was entitled to a hearing and because on the record, with his degrees from Holy Cross and Yale Law School plus his tenure on the court of appeals, he appeared at least marginally qualified.
The late Democratic senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.) in a 1992 C-SPAN interview about his book “Advice & Consent”: Gerald Ford followed the Constitution by consulting with senators. George Bush did not. Gerald Ford contacted people around the nation and said, “Who would be the best possible person to put on the court?” and then he submitted 20 names to the American Bar Association for their evaluation. George Bush submitted one.
Given his short time on the federal bench, Thomas and his advisers settled on the “Pin Point” strategy: An emphasis on his roots in Pin Point, the poor town in Georgia where he grew up, and his personal story of hard work, family values and character. So Hill’s accusation was especially devastating for him.
Thomas’s wife, Virginia, in 1994’s “Resurrection: The Confirmation of Clarence Thomas” by former senator John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), who served as Thomas’s mentor during the hearings: The nature of his anxiety . . . was the humiliation factor. That seemed to be his major concern. Here was this charge that was so against everything he had done in his public life and everything he believes in his private and personal thoughts, a charge being exposed and discussed by what looked like rational people, and it was killing him. Somebody was trying to destroy him and that was the major concern. He kept saying why are they trying to destroy me? He kept asking that question over and over again.
Hill began her testimony on Friday, Oct. 11, 1991, and was aggressively questioned by the 14 men who made up the Senate Judiciary Committee. Thomas absolutely denied the allegations before her appearance and again the next day. \
Hill in her 1997 memoir, “Speaking Truth to Power”: My world has been forever changed by the events that culminated in the “Hill-Thomas” hearings. I am no longer an anonymous, private individual — my name having become synonymous with sexual harassment. To my supporters I represent the courage to come forward and disclose a painful truth — a courage that thousands of others have found since the hearing. To my detractors I represent the debasement of public forum, at best, a pawn, at worst, a perjurer. Living with these conflicting perceptions is difficult, sometimes overwhelming.
Simon in the C-SPAN interview: After we were in the hearing for a while, it became apparent that we had something huge on our hands in terms of public attention. That played a role in the Thomas nomination, because on Friday, Anita Hill testified. Friday is a limited television audience. Saturday, Clarence Thomas testified — a much larger audience. People who saw only one of the two believed the one they saw, whichever one that was. I think that was a factor in public opinion being on his side — only one of the factors — and the public opinion being on his side I think was clearly a factor in some of the votes in the Senate.
George H.W. Bush in a 1991 letter published in “All the Best,” a collection of his writing: What’s happening to Clarence Thomas is just plain horrible. All the groups that tried to beat him on abortion or affirmative action have now come out of the woodwork. They are trying to destroy a decent man. I do not think they will succeed but they are in a frenzy around here. . . . I know nothing of Ms. Hill but I know a lot about Clarence Thomas, with whom I visited again yesterday and continue to have total confidence in his honor and decency. This is an ugly process and one can see clearly why so many good people elect to stay out of public life.
Republicans turned the questioning to Hill and her credibility; Democrats were criticized for allowing that to happen. Biden (D-Del.), the committee chairman, was singled out by liberals for showing deference to Thomas and not calling any witnesses who could support Hill’s testimony.
Former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) in a 2014 interview on the “Death, Sex & Money” podcast: I’d had a wife who’d had much more harassment than Anita Hill. And that’s when I lost my marbles. I thought, “What is this? I mean, for God’s sake, what did he do?” Well, nothing. “Did he touch you?” “No.” “What is it?” “He wanted to talk about Long Dong Silver and pubic hair and coke cans.” “Is that it? Is that it?” “Yes, it is. I wanted you to be aware of his behavior.” And so I was a monster. I was just pissed to the core.
Biden in Specter’s “Passion for Truth” (he omitted any mention of the hearing from his own memoir): My role, I decided — and I had great debates with my staff about it — I was going to be a judge and I was going to apply rules that were not required to be applied. . . . Out of a sense of fairness, that’s what I was going to do. And I wasn’t about, with my view of civil liberties, to attack a guy I was already against. I was against him from day one.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose checkered personal history with women effectively silenced him during the hearings, in a speech at Harvard two weeks afterward:I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than honest disagreement with my positions, or the usual criticism from the far right. It also involves the disappointment of friends and many others who rely on me to fight the good fight.
Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) in a 2010 CNN interview: I can tell you Clarence Thomas was telling the truth. I believe that Anita Hill was an excellent witness. I think she actually believed and talked herself into believing what she said. There was a sexual harasser at that time, according to the sources I had, and he was her supervisor, he just wasn’t Clarence Thomas. I think she transposed that to where she believed it because she was outed by the feminist women at that time and she couldn’t change her mind after — she couldn’t change her tune. And that’s what happened.
After Hill’s testimony, Thomas told the committee that he would not answer any further questions, angrily calling the hearing “a high-tech lynching.”
Gary Wills, the New York Review of Books, 1995 : Whatever one thinks of the lynching trope, it worked. And one aspect of Thomas’s character was vindicated — his audacity. The nerve of it is breathtaking. He had, in effect, ceded the areas of competence and constitutionalism: He was “out to lunch” when it came to subjects about which he was expected to be knowledgeable, and he gave up all his earlier comments on “natural law,” on ideas in general. He had staked everything on character — and now he would not answer any questions about his character. He sat there on his last limb, and angrily started sawing it off, with this dare: “Catch me before I fall, or you are all racist lynchers.” And, to their shame, the senators, shamefacedly, caught him. But weren’t Hill’s charges false, or at least suspect? Even if they were, Thomas’s performance did not merit confirmation. It is also a mark of character — of judicial temperament if you will — to face criticism as a lawyer, with arguments, not with torrents of invective against the committee for asking questions one does not want to hear.
Former Washington Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher in their 2007 biography, “Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas” : The starkly different testimonies of Hill and Thomas left no possibility for misunderstanding. Wiggle room? There was none. Neither Hill nor Thomas offered a backstory about their involvement with each other that might have led the Senate — indeed the nation — to conclude something beyond the obvious: One of them was lying, period. Was lying to the committee, to the country, perhaps even to him or herself.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, who reported on the Hill story, in an introduction to the 2005 published transcript of the hearing: Despite the fact that Hill took and passed a lie detector test, the two sides were no match for each other. The Thomas forces, frantic but unified, marched together to a strategic tune composed by Thomas and Danforth and orchestrated by the White House. Hill’s forces, inexperienced, in disarray, and with little or no support from Senate Democrats, were left to flounder. When it was over, public opinion polls showed the people believed Clarence Thomas by a margin of two to one, a ratio that would reverse itself in less than two years.
Although the Judiciary Committee voted not to approve Thomas’s nomination, the full Senate voted 52-48 to confirm.
Danforth in a 2009 interview with NPR’s “Tell Me More”: It’s very hard for me to say that there is anything I could have done differently because it was like walking down the street and getting in a fight in an alley. I mean, it was just awful. It was just an absolutely terrible situation. And for the people that wanted to defeat him, there was no limit, just anything goes. And I thought it was awful. And I hope that doesn’t happen to any other nominee. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth trying to destroy a human being to win a political point. . . . It’s certainly not a fight I wanted to be in. It was absolutely the worst experience of my life.
Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), in a recent interview: Across the country, the televised hearings opened the eyes of millions of people to the importance of public hearings for Supreme Court nominees. The hearings also sparked a national conversation about issues that had received scant congressional attention until then. There is also a poignant lesson from those hearings for this very moment. There was a Democratic majority in the Senate at the time and a Republican in the White House. In sharp contrast with what we’re seeing today with the [Merrick] Garland nomination, with a Republican majority calling the shots, no one back then blocked Clarence Thomas from a hearing, from a committee vote, or from a floor vote. After those revealing hearings, when the committee voted to disapprove the nomination, the committee still sent Justice Thomas’s nomination to the floor and the full Senate so that all senators could uphold their constitutional duty. We followed precedent, and we felt a responsibility to respect it.”
Danforth in “Resurrection”: Clarence Thomas, just confirmed as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was soaking in a bath, reading, when Ginni told him the result of the vote. He shrugged at the news. . . . Clarence describes how he felt when he learned of the vote: “Not blasé but not happy. I felt I had been abused. I just felt like I went through something that shouldn’t have ever occurred.”
Hill in “Speaking Truth to Power”: What happened in October 1991 should not have happened to me or anyone else.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly gave credit to NPR’s Nina Totenberg for breaking the story of Anita Hill’s allegations against Clarence Thomas. A Newday story on the allegations by Timothy Phelps moved on the wire services the night before Totenberg’s report aired.