The Legacy of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Hearings

It was 20 years ago this month that the nation was riveted by allegations that Thomas sexually harassed Hill. 

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Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas being sworn in (Getty Images)

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post writes an interesting retrospective on the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings, which occurred 20 years ago.

Hill's sexual-harassment allegation threatened to derail Thomas' confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. Marcus points out that the tawdry revelations that surfaced during the weekend-long marathon hearings paved the way for lewd and lascivious actions to show up on prime-time television in the form of wardrobe malfunctions and, ahem, Jersey Shore.

The intervening experience of the Thomas-Hill hearings, with the discussion of Thomas's alleged interest in “Long Dong Silver” and commentary about pubic hair on a Coke can, helped define deviancy downward. As we sat at the press table during the most explicit testimony, the New York Times reporter turned to me, a stricken look on his face, and asked how we were going to write about all this, given our newspapers' notorious queasiness about sexual matters. In the end, our stories were unexpurgated.

Second, the hearings heralded -- although again they did not create -- an intensifying of the partisan divide. The 1987 fight over the failed nomination of Robert Bork was intense but nowhere near as personal or partisan.

As with the Clinton impeachment several years later, the Thomas nomination witnessed each side automatically lining up in support of, or in opposition to, the protagonist. Senators who wanted to see Thomas on the high court credited his version of events; those who wanted him defeated for other reasons chose to believe Hill. The facts themselves took second place to political interests.

Indeed, the very women's groups most exercised about Thomas's alleged misconduct were notably, shamefully silent when it came to Clinton's behavior with a White House intern and his false statements under oath. 

In hindsight, the Thomas confirmation seems almost quaint, with the Senate's majority vote in favor of the nominee. The possibility of a filibuster was bargained away early on. Today, an option that once seemed nuclear has become the norm. 

Hill was a pioneer on many levels. She helped instill a low tolerance for sexual harassment and tore down political barriers for women. She put men on notice, and her reluctant testimony gave women the strength to speak up. That is why most people still believe her story.

Read more at the Washington Post.

In other news: Steve Jobs Dead at 56.

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