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 mic 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.
But viewed again three decades later — with Clarence Thomas still on the Supreme Court, another accused harasser, Donald Trump, in the White House, and a parade of powerful men caught up in sexual harassment and assault scandals — 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.
On Sunday, Hill told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd that “I can’t say I was entirely surprised” with the recent allegations made 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?”
The most brutal questioning came from Biden’s Republican colleague on the committee, the late 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, and as recently as this year, 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.
On Wednesday 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 come amid a book tour in which he has been asked repeatedly whether he will run for president in three years. He likely knows the issue could haunt him. In 2015, the last time he considered running, this headline appeared in Politico: “Biden’s ‘Anita’ Problem.”
“Let’s get something straight here,” Biden 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.”
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