In this new environment, several on the left have begun reconsidering their support for Bill Clinton. Clinton should have resigned, wrote Matt Yglesias at Vox; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also said that Clinton should have resigned. Alyssa Rosenberg went even further, arguing that Democrats even now should shun Clinton.
While some might say that it’s 20 years too late, it’s an important and healthy reckoning to have, and I admire them for it. As one liberal friend of mine said, this isn’t about apologizing to Republicans: This is about Democrats being honest to themselves and being better.
Those of us on the right could use a reckoning, too. Obviously, Donald Trump has no business being president; I opposed his candidacy and I oppose his presidency, so I don’t need to reiterate that further. The same is true for Roy Moore. But I’ve been thinking about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, and I think it’s time conservatives seriously reconsider our continued support for Thomas in light of his past.
As a conservative, Thomas was one of my role models. I am a fan of his judicial philosophy. Reading his story of rising from nothing, from a Geechee-dialect speaking black kid in Georgia, to Yale and the Supreme Court, was inspiring to me.
During his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee of his. Hill claimed that Thomas made unwelcome advances to her and spoke about sex in graphics terms that made her uncomfortable. Thomas denied everything, of course, and was supported by prominent politicians. It was his word against hers, and he won out.
Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said “her story just doesn’t add up.” Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) notoriously spoke of “… getting stuff over the transom about Professor Hill. I’ve got letters hanging out of my pockets. I’ve got faxes. I’ve got statements from Tulsa saying: ‘Watch out for this woman.’ ” David Brock (who was then right-wing) called Hill “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”
Thomas called it a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks. Having seen how other minority conservatives were treated by the left, I found it convincing that the opposition was motivated by race and ideological nonconformance. But recent events have made me reconsider my knee-jerk defense.
Recently, I looked up the case again. Here is a good review: “As Thomas’s confirmation was nearing a final vote in October ’91, an affidavit from Hill was leaked to National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg (the source was never identified); in the document, which Hill, then a University of Oklahoma law professor, had prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee several weeks earlier, she alleged that Thomas had repeatedly asked her out on dates and made lewd and graphic sexual comments to her when she had worked for him in the early 1980s.” After Hill gave her testimony, she was viciously smeared, and Thomas was confirmed anyhow.
It’s always a question of balance between believing the victims and avoiding mob mentality. But there are a few factors that tilt toward Hill’s version of the story.
It wasn’t exactly his word against hers; she had witnesses whom the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, did not call up. And Biden is a Democrat, so there goes the “they only attacked him because he’s conservative” narrative. He was confirmed by a Senate under Democratic control.
In an interview on CNN, conservative journalist Bethany Mandel talks about how coming forward affects women. “This will be the only thing these women are ever known for. That’s not something someone wants to sign up for.” Hill is a law professor with a respected career in her own right, but she has to carry this around with her — without even the satisfaction of having her harasser punished.
There was also one big part of the puzzle that never clicked. In Jeffrey Toobin’s book about the Supreme Court, he writes that reporters for The Washington Post obtained “information confirming that Thomas’ involvement with pornography far exceeded what the public had been led to believe” just after he was confirmed. (That juicy detail didn’t make it to print then because once he was confirmed, the story was considered finished.) The issue at hand is not Thomas’s entertainment predilections. But if he was dishonest about the videos, it’s conceivable that he lied about the rest, too.
Hill, meanwhile, had no reason to lie and had supporting evidence. Is it enough to stand up in the court of law? Maybe not. But the question was if Thomas was fit to sit on the Supreme Court, not if he should be prosecuted.
The severity of the claims against Thomas pales in comparison to the claims against Clinton, something other conservatives have pointed out. In response to someone comparing how Hillary treated Bill’s accusers with how Republicans treated Hill, Jonah Goldberg tweeted “You do realize the allegations against Clinton and Thomas aren’t comparable, right?”
Yet here’s an inconsistency to the logic here. Are we defending Thomas because he is innocent or because it’s not that bad? Until very recently, I probably would have responded similarly to Goldberg. Maybe Thomas did say some things he shouldn’t have, I would have thought, but he wasn’t accused of anything “serious.”
All along, in other words, I didn’t doubt Hill. I knew the truth was on her side. But I was subconsciously belittling her experience, and that was wrong. In 2017, post-Weinstein, we can’t let sexual harassment slide just because it doesn’t rise to the severity of rape, or because we believe that boys will be boys.
I believe Anita Hill. I believe that Clarence Thomas abused his authority to sexually harass a woman who worked for him. And lied about it. And smeared his accuser.
And got away with it.
As painful as it is to repudiate a man I respected, I believe Thomas should never have been confirmed and should resign.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Anita Hill is a “law-school professor.” Hill teaches courses on law at Brandeis University, which is not a law school.