About 90 minutes into Anita Hill’s testimony on Oct. 11, 1991, Joe Biden had a choice to make.
To cast doubt on her sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee planned to ask her about a former acquaintance named John Doggett, who said in an affidavit that Hill was prone to romantic delusions and had “a problem being rejected by men she was attracted to.”
Doggett had not been vetted by the committee, as the rules of the hearing required, and Biden said it would be best not to air his claims until aides interviewed him. But as Republicans applied pressure, Biden was unsure what to do — changing his mind five times as colleagues, witnesses and a national television audience watched.
“We will wait,” Biden said first, only to weigh in moments later with another idea: “Whatever the witness prefers.”
Hill said to the chairman: “So you are going to make me decide, aren’t you?”
Biden’s handling of Hill’s allegations against Thomas and the hearings they incited in 1991 remains one of the most revealing and controversial episodes of his career. In an era when bipartisan support for Supreme Court nominees was more common, the senator from Delaware wanted to run a process that was seen as fair by both sides.
But for decades, Democrats have been angered by Hill’s treatment by the GOP and conflicted about Biden’s performance as chairman. The issue has even more resonance for some Democrats now in the wake of allegations of sexual assault against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh last year, which led to a similar hearing. Both he and Thomas denied wrongdoing.
Interviews with a dozen people with firsthand knowledge and a review of the written record and interviews published with participants over the past three decades reinforce that Biden failed to use the powers afforded to Senate committee chairmen to conduct a judicious and thorough inquiry into Hill’s allegations. He did not give full consideration to witnesses whose allegations seemed to corroborate her testimony or curb the attacks and innuendo leveled at her during the hearing. A former Biden lawyer told The Washington Post this month that the Democrats were outmaneuvered by Republicans, whose purpose was to damage Hill.
Biden, 76, entered the 2020 presidential race Thursday. Praised by supporters as a champion for women and survivors of sexual assault, the former vice president has faced doubts about his White House bid because of his age, past performance as a candidate and a physical style that has made some women uncomfortable. Critics also have blamed Biden for not apologizing to Hill personally for conducting a hearing they say was not fair to her.
Biden called Hill earlier this month to express regrets over her experience, but Hill was unsatisfied with the conversation and did not characterize his comments as an apology, the New York Times reported Thursday. Hill did not respond to calls and emails about their conversation, and Biden’s campaign told the Times it would have no further comment.
“I still don’t think [Biden’s response] takes ownership of his role in what happened,” Hill told The Post in a 2017 interview. She declined to be interviewed for this article.
“Women were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his leadership to really open the way to have these kinds of hearings,” she said. “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.”
Biden said Friday that he was sorry for the way Hill was treated but that there was little he could have done differently as chairman.
“I wish we could have figured out a better way to get this thing done,” he said during an appearance on ABC’s “The View.” “I did everything in my power to do what I thought was within the rules to be able to stop things.”
Offered several opportunities to personally apologize or take responsibility, he did not.
“If you go back and look at what I said and didn’t say, I don’t think I treated her badly. I took on her opposition,” he said.
The former Biden lawyer, Cynthia Hogan, said in an interview that he approached his role during the Thomas hearings as if he were a neutral arbiter.
“What happened is we got really politically outplayed by the Republicans,” said Hogan, now vice president for public policy for Americas at Apple. “They came with a purpose, and that purpose was to destroy Anita Hill. Democrats did not coordinate and they did not prepare for battle. I think he would say that that’s what should be done differently.”
Keith Henderson, a friend of Hill’s who spent time with her as the hearings unfolded, wondered in an interview this month why Biden had not personally apologized to her.
“That’s where I fault him,” Henderson said in his first comments to the press about the episode. “He should just clear the air and clear his own conscience. . . . I think he’s making another mistake in the way he’s handling the whole issue.”
Biden was 48 in 1991, a fourth-term Democratic senator known for his political moderation and what some former Senate aides described as a preoccupation with being liked by members of both parties. As the author of the bill that would become the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, he prided himself on his sensitivity toward women who had been mistreated and used his chairmanship to advocate for their interests.
At the end of June, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall announced that he would retire as the first and only black justice on the high court. President George H.W. Bush responded by nominating the 43-year-old Thomas, also African American, who had served in the Reagan administration and was a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Over the summer, rumors circulated around Washington that while Hill worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he had pressured her for dates and directed their work conversations toward his sexual interests. Thomas, who declined to comment for this article, has vehemently denied harassing Hill or any woman who worked for him.
Biden approached the confirmation with a focus on Thomas’s judicial philosophy and a desire to avoid questions of ethics or personal conduct. During the battle over Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination in 1987, polling showed public support for steering clear of personal matters, a Biden aide said a few years later. Biden still had a bitter taste from attacks on his character during the 1988 campaign cycle, when he withdrew as a presidential candidate after facing allegations that he plagiarized part of a speech from a British politician.
Hill, then a 35-year-old law professor in Oklahoma, was approached by Democratic Senate staffers and told them about her experiences with Thomas, with the understanding that she would remain anonymous. But Biden’s staff told her that they could not circulate her allegations to members of the Judiciary Committee unless they were shared with Thomas, along with her name.
Eventually, in response to Hill’s frustration, Biden’s staff suggested on Sept. 20 that she could alert committee members to her charges by submitting to an FBI investigation in which both she and Thomas would be interviewed.
The probe began three days later, after Hill faxed a four-page statement of allegations to Biden’s staff. A senior Biden aide said in 1992 that the FBI interviewed “approximately 10 people in about seven different cities in around 48 hours.” The final report did not draw conclusions.
Biden did not share Hill’s statement with Democrats on the committee until hours before the Judiciary Committee deadlocked in a 7-to-7 vote on Thomas’s nomination; most Republican members of the committee did not review the statement until days later. (Thomas was confirmed 52 to 48 in mid-October; Biden voted against him in committee and on the floor.)
The day of the committee vote, according to multiple accounts, Biden told Thomas that he would oppose him for ideological reasons but promised to send the nomination to the Senate floor, where it appeared Thomas would be confirmed. Biden said later that during the conversation, he assured Thomas that he would be treated fairly if Hill’s allegations were reported in the press.
Former senator John Danforth (R-Mo.) and Thomas’s wife later wrote that Biden promised to vouch for Thomas’s character, a characterization Biden disputed publicly.
“I think you’re a good man,” Virginia Thomas recalled Biden telling Clarence Thomas, according to an essay she wrote in People magazine in November 1991. “And if these allegations come up, I don’t think they have merit. I will be your biggest defender.’ ”
Nine days later, as the Senate prepared for its final vote on Thomas’s nomination, Hill’s anonymity was broken when her allegations and identity were reported by Newsday, a Long Island-based newspaper, and on NPR.
Biden was concerned that any attention on Hill would raise concerns about how he had handled her case. From his point of view, the FBI had investigated, and he had made its final report available to members of his committee. He had followed the rules.
The news led Senate Democrats to postpone the floor vote on Thomas’s nomination for one week to allow for new hearings. Republicans received several concessions from Biden and Democratic leaders. Hearings would begin in just three days, the Judiciary Committee would not take a second vote on Thomas, and the final floor vote would take place on schedule, no matter what came out during the hearings.
Biden and Republicans agreed that the hearings would focus on sexual harassment allegations and not delve into other matters, such as Thomas’s alleged interest in pornography. (Thomas denied Hill’s charges, including her claim that he had discussed pornographic films with her.)
The chairman also offered Thomas the choice of testifying before Hill, after Hill or both; he chose the third option.
“I think that [Biden] was in a very, very difficult position because it was such a major event and he was trying to be the referee of a proceeding where there weren’t any rules,” Danforth said in an interview.
Biden called Hill for the first time that evening to tell her about the hearings, a conversation she recalled in her 1997 book, “Speaking Truth to Power.”
“I asked how the hearing would be conducted. ‘Well, at this point the only thing we can do is to conduct an open hearing,’ he said, almost as if I were to blame. ‘I give you my word that I acted only to protect your confidentiality,’ ” she wrote.
Three days later, all of the major television networks carried the hearing as Biden gaveled it to order and gave opening remarks. He said that fairness demanded that Thomas “be given the benefit of the doubt.” He also said that as chairman, he had the power to “rule out of order questions that are not relevant to our proceedings.”
Thomas, upset with Biden for failing to vouch for his character, delivered a fiery opening statement, saying that he would not “provide the rope for my own lynching,” a comment that stunned Democrats to silence.
As Biden began his questioning, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) cut him off mid-sentence.
“This is the nomination of a man to become a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States,” said Hatch, appearing irate and beginning a long attack against Hill and the process.
“Would the senator yield?” Biden said after some time.
“I am not finished,” Hatch said.
“Senator, let me--.”
“Let me finish.”
“No, I will not.”
“Yes, you will. Yes, you will,” Hatch said. Biden was the chairman, but Republicans had started to take control.
Hill compared the hearing to a “trial that lacked all of the protections of a trial.” She faced a committee that was all white, all male and had an average age of about 60; Hill is African American.
“Even if somebody had been sitting at the table with me, you couldn’t object, nobody could speak but me, and the chairman was not controlling what was going on, so it was worse than being put on trial because in a trial you’ve got legal protections,” she told The Post in 2017.
In Senate offices, Republicans were seeking affidavits from Hill’s former law students alleging that she engaged in unseemly behaviors. They also sought information about psychological conditions that could lead her to fabricate claims about Thomas. In the hearing room, Republican members of the committee questioned Hill’s motives and sanity, raised the possibility that she had plagiarized one allegation from the horror novel “The Exorcist,” and suggested they were amassing a trove of ugly details about her personal life.
“I really am getting stuff over the transom about Professor Hill,” said Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.). “I have got statements from her former law professors, statements from people that know her, statements from Tulsa, Oklahoma, saying, ‘Watch out for this woman.’ ”
Simpson told WNYC in 2014 that he was “a monster” to Hill and angered “to the core” during the hearing because he thought her allegations described behavior that did not merit serious concern.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), now deceased, asked witnesses who supported Thomas whether Hill’s allegations were made for reasons of ambition and whether she might have imagined the behavior she said Thomas engaged in. After Hill passed a lie-detector test ordered by her lawyers, Simpson read an affidavit stating that this did not mean she did not suffer from “a delusional disorder.”
As Republicans prepared to question Hill during the hearing, Biden said there was “no right answer” to whether they should be allowed to ask about Doggett, her former acquaintance, in violation of the rules. He placed the onus on Hill to decide, and she relented.
“I did not at any time have any fantasy about a romance with him,” she told Specter.
Biden challenged several witnesses who testified for Thomas, including Doggett, saying that Doggett’s conclusion that Hill had fantasized about him romantically was a “true leap of faith — or ego.”
The hearings ran for three days. Four witnesses testified for Hill, two of whom said she had told them about Thomas’s alleged behavior in the early 1980s. Sixteen witnesses testified on behalf of Thomas, dragging the final session into the early morning of Oct. 14.
Thomas was asked questions about a woman named Angela Wright, a former EEOC employee whose claim that he had asked the size of her breasts and pressured her for dates had made its way to the committee. Wright, then an editor at the Charlotte Observer, was deposed by staffers and flew to Washington under subpoena. Biden, citing time constraints, never called her to testify.
Two other women who had worked at the EEOC were also seen as potential witnesses whose accounts would support Hill’s. Rose Jourdain could corroborate Wright’s story, and Sukari Hardnett wrote to the committee that “if you were young, black, female and reasonably attractive, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female” by Thomas while working for him.
Wright declined to comment for this article. Jourdain died in 2010. Hardnett did not respond to a request for comment.
The final day of the hearing was allotted for panels of witnesses, and the pro-Thomas testimony went long. If Wright, Jourdain or Hardnett had been called to testify after that, it would have been late at night.
In the end, Biden did not summon any of the women, and little attention was paid to Wright’s deposition, which was submitted to the written record in lieu of her testimony. Biden framed this as Wright’s decision, and the two signed a letter that stated that if she wanted to testify in person, he would honor her request. Wright, under subpoena until that point, saw it as Biden’s decision whether to call her.
Hogan, the former Biden lawyer, said she recommended that Biden place Wright’s deposition in the record instead of having her testify late on the final night. She said she saw it as a “slam-dunk victory” because the interview would go unrebutted by Republicans, but now says this view was naive.
“I feel I gave Senator Biden bad advice,” Hogan told The Post. “I told him I thought it was better than having her testify live. I have felt bad about this for years.”
Republicans who worked to confirm Thomas praised Biden’s performance and said he had no reason to apologize.
“I thought under the circumstances, he did as best he could,” C. Boyden Gray, who served as Bush’s White House counsel during the confirmation battle, said in an interview. “There was a lot of obvious disappointment and maybe even anger about the way things turned out, but I think those of us who knew him knew he was trying to maintain the dignity of the committee and run a straight process.”
Gray said that he “always thought [Biden] was skeptical of the whole plot, if you will, or the whole development.”
Biden in 2017 said that he believed Hill and said he was sorry “if she felt she didn’t get a fair hearing.”
Libby Casey and Annys Shin interviewed Hill in 2017. Robert Barnes, Alice Crites, Julie Tate and Matt Viser contributed to this report.