For the second time in the past month, former vice president Joe Biden has tried to atone for his role in the aggressive questioning of Anita Hill during a now-notorious 1991 congressional hearing.
In an interview with Teen Vogue published Wednesday, Biden said he regretted the way lawmakers treated Hill when she appeared before a Senate panel to detail allegations that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her former boss, had sexually harassed her.
“I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” he said. “I owe her an apology.”
During Thomas’s confirmation hearings, Hill testified that he had repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances toward her when she worked for him at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas denied the allegations.
Hill, who is black, was grilled about her claims by an all-white, all-male group of lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who attacked her credibility and peppered her with lurid questions about her encounters with Thomas. Biden, the committee chairman, did little to temper the accusatory tone in the room. (A transcript is available here.)
The episode has received renewed attention as the wave of sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men has grown into a full-blown movement. Hill and her defenders have blamed Biden for letting the hearing spiral out of control.
Speaking with Teen Vogue editor in chief Elaine Welteroth, Biden defended some of his actions but said he wished he would have handled things differently.
“I believed Anita Hill,” he said. “My one regret is that I wasn’t able to tone down the attacks on her by some of my Republican friends. I mean, they really went after her. As much as I tried to intervene I did not have the power to gavel them out of order. I tried to be like a judge and only allow a question that would be relevant to ask.”
Thomas was confirmed 52-48. Biden voted against him.
Hill and others have said Biden was no innocent bystander during the hearing, which featured cringe-inducing exchanges about breast sizes, pornography and Thomas’s anatomy. At one point, Biden questioned Hill about how she felt during an alleged sexually charged moment, asking, “Were you uncomfortable, were you embarrassed, did it not concern you?”
This isn’t the first time Biden has revisited the hearing in the weeks since sexual assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein set off a deluge of misconduct claims, outing some of the most recognizable men in media, entertainment and government as alleged sexual predators.
Last month, in a discussion at Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year summit in New York, a reporter asked Biden if there was anything he would have done differently in his handling of Hill’s testimony, according to HuffPost.
Biden responded using some of the same language as in his Teen Vogue interview but seemed to stop short of apologizing outright.
“Let’s get something straight here. I believed Anita Hill. I voted against Clarence Thomas,” he told the audience, adding that he was “confident” that Thomas had sexually harassed his former aide.
Glamour editor in chief Cindi Leive asked a follow-up question, noting that Hill has said she felt like the senators treated her unfairly.
“The message I’ve delivered before is I am so sorry if she believes that,” Biden said, according to HuffPost. “I am so sorry that she had to go through what she went through.”
Hill, now a legal history professor at Brandeis University, was asked about Biden’s remarks at the Glamour event in a Nov. 16 interview with The Washington Post. She was joined in the interview by five current and former Democratic lawmakers who helped persuade the Senate Judiciary Committee to let her testify against Thomas.
Hill said of Biden: “He said, ‘I am sorry if she felt she didn’t get a fair hearing.’ That’s sort of an ‘I’m sorry if you were offended.’”
“But I still don’t think it takes ownership of his role in what happened,” she added. “And he also doesn’t understand that it wasn’t just that I felt it was not fair. It was that women were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his leadership to really open the way to have these kinds of hearings. They should have been using best practices to show leadership on this issue on behalf of women’s equality. And they did just the opposite.”