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Re-watching Joe Biden’s disastrous Anita Hill hearing: A sexual harassment inquisition

Then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) questions law professor Anita Hill during a confirmation hearing on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. (Video: C-SPAN)

This post has been updated.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, lost control of the biggest moment yet in his political career — the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings — moments after Anita Hill finished describing what the Supreme Court nominee said about his penis.

With Americans glued to their TVs, chaos broke out in the Caucus Room of the Russell Office Building as Hill’s family, which had somehow not made it into the packed room for her opening statement, began trickling in — one after another after another.

“It’s a very large family,” Hill said.

Biden, a 48-year-old Democrat from Delaware who had already made one unsuccessful run for the presidency, watched, growing increasingly helpless.

“We should get this underway,” he said. “My Lord.”

An open microphone picked up Biden saying, “Is staff trying to get some chairs for, Christ’s sake?”

Noise in the room grew louder.

“Let’s not wait,” Biden said, now clearly perturbed. “Let’s have every able-bodied person just grab a chair and bring it out, okay?”

Biden banged his gavel. For the future vice president, it went downhill from there.

That Friday, Oct. 11, 1991, was one of the most surreal moments in U.S. political history, with testimony about breast sizes, sex with animals and someone named Long Dong Silver.

Eight women say Charlie Rose sexually harassed them — with nudity, groping and lewd calls

But viewed again three decades later — with another Supreme Court nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh, facing sexual misconduct allegations — the moment is a reminder of what stepping forward cost Hill then. And how hard it remains for women to step forward more than 25 years later.

Biden, who has been scrutinized for his handling of the Thomas hearing and has since apologized, said Monday that any woman’s public claims of assault should be presumed to be true.

The former vice president said the current episode “brings back all of the complicated issues that were there” decades ago.

“For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time,” Biden said, generally speaking. “But nobody fails to understand that this is like jumping into a cauldron.”

Last year, Hill told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd that “I can’t say I was entirely surprised” with the recent allegations made against powerful men and the “#MeToo” movement that followed on social media.

“We have a widespread problem in this country,” she said.

Hill, facing 14 white men on the Senate panel, endured withering, skeptical questioning — including from Biden, who Hill and her defenders still blame for setting an accusing, skeptical tone and losing control not just of the seating arrangements.

“If you can, to the best of your ability,” Biden asked at one point, “I would like you to recount for us where each of the incidents that you have mentioned in your opening statement occurred, physically where they occurred.”

There was, Hill and others said later, some extreme tone-deafness.

In asking Hill to describe the sexually charged moments with Thomas, Biden asked: “Can you tell us how you felt at the time? Were you uncomfortable, were you embarrassed, did it not concern you? How did you feel about it?”

She said her boss raped her in a bank vault. Her sexual harassment case would make legal history.

The most brutal questioning came from Biden’s Republican colleague on the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

“You testified this morning,” Specter said, “that the most embarrassing question involved — this is not too bad — women’s large breasts. That is a word we use all the time. That was the most embarrassing aspect of what Judge Thomas had said to you.”

Hill quickly chided Specter for not characterizing her remarks correctly. Left uncritiqued: Specter’s suggestion that talk of breasts at work was, you know, no big deal.

Specter could not understand, he said, how a seasoned lawyer like herself had not taken notes on the incidents. That was suspicious to him. He openly wondered about her political motivations and whether the committee should trust her recollections of the incidents between her and Thomas, who adamantly denied every allegation.

“There’s nothing in the statement, nothing in my background,” Hill replied, “no motivation that would show that I would make up something like this. I guess one does have to really understand something about the nature of sexual harassment. It is very difficult for people to come forward with these things, these kinds of things.”

After the hearings, as well as years later, Hill and other women’s rights advocates expressed dismay that Biden did not call a panel of expert witnesses to inform the committee of 14 men about the pressure women felt to keep such incidents to themselves for so many years — their fear of reprisals, that men in power wouldn’t care, that women simply had no choice.

Anita Hill and her 1991 congressional defenders to Joe Biden: You were part of the problem

Last December, in an interview with Teen Vogue, Biden expressed regret again for the way lawmakers treated Hill and his role in the hearing.

“I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” he said. “I owe her an apology.”

It was the second time in a month that Biden said he was sorry. His mea culpas came amid a book tour in which he had been asked repeatedly whether he would run for president in three years. He probably  knows the issue could haunt him. In 2015, the last time he considered running, this headline appeared in Politico: “Biden’s ‘Anita’ Problem.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden said on Nov. 13 that he believed Anita Hill’s testimony that she was sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. (Video: Glamour)

“Let’s get something straight here,” Biden said in a recent appearance at an event held by Glamour magazine. “I believed Anita Hill.”

But for many of the women in that room and those who watched on TV — and for Hill, certainly — the tone bordered on disbelief.

After Hill’s testimony, Biden seemed to apologize for what had gone on. He even praised Hill.

“I admire you,” Biden said. “I admire the way you handled this matter once you were confronted with it.”

And he understood her, too.

“I, for one, can assure you that, assuming for the moment what you have said is true,” Biden said, “there is nothing hard to understand.”

Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

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