It's like 1991 again, with Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill in the news amid allegations of sexual harassment. The surprise flare-up may have been triggered by a phone call Thomas's wife Ginny made to Anita Hill requesting an apology (leading Hill to bizarrely suggest the FBI get involved), followed by statements by former Thomas girlfriend Lillian McEwen, who is shopping around a memoir, that Thomas had an obsession with "huge, huge breasts."
Maureen Dowd hopped all over the controversy, citing the new claims by McEwen (also a lawyer for Sen. Joe Biden on the Judiciary Committee that oversaw the Thomas hearings) to character assassination on Ginny Thomas, in her Saturday column "Supremely Bad Judgment." Dowd also criticized the "shameful Thomas-Hill hearings" and the wimpiness of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including then Sen. Joe Biden.
In the wacky coda to one of the most searing chapters in American history, everyone remained true to form.
Anita Hill reacted with starchy disgust.
Ginni Thomas came across like a spiritually addled nut.
Clarence Thomas was mute, no doubt privately raging about the trouble women have caused him.
And now into the circus comes Lillian McEwen, an old girlfriend of Thomas's.
Looking to shop a memoir, the 65-year-old McEwen used the occasion of Ginni's weird phone message to Anita - asking her to "consider an apology" and "pray about this" and "O.K., have a good day!" - to open up to reporters.
In her interviews, McEwen confirmed Thomas's obsession with women with "huge, huge breasts," with scouting the women he worked with as possible partners, and with talking about porn at work - while he was head of the federal agency that polices sexual harassment.
Years later, some of the Democrats on that all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee told me they assumed there must have been a consensual romance between the boss and his subordinate. McEwen assumed so, too, because Clarence took Anita with him when he changed agencies. Hill has made it clear she felt no reciprocal attraction.
Joe Biden, the senator who ran those hearings, was leery of the liberal groups eager to use Hill as a pawn to checkmate Thomas. He circumscribed the testimony of women who could have corroborated Hill's unappetizing portrait of a power-abusing predator.
It's too late to relitigate the shameful Thomas-Hill hearings. We're stuck with a justice-for-life who lied his way onto the bench with the help of bullying Republicans and cowed Democrats.
Dowd actually covered the hearings as a Washington reporter for the Times, as I documented in Supremely Slanted, Times Watch's study of the paper's coverage of the last two decades of Supreme Court nominations. Dowd's present-day opinion matches her supremely slanted reporting from 1991. Eschewing balance, Dowd took Hill's side when her decade-old accusations of sexual harassment against Thomas surfaced.
Dowd faulted Republican meanness and mudslinging and Democratic timidity, as hinted in the headline over her October 10 story: "Facing Issue of Harassment, Washington Slings the Mud." Dowd wrote:
The White House, for its part, is hunkered down, preparing to make a heavy assault against Professor Hill. It has been noted with some surprise by political operatives watching the White House and Congress that no one in the Republican camp seems to take the anger among women in Washington this week as a warning that its party's candidates, including President Bush, might suffer in 1992.
On October 13, 1991, Dowd accused the G.O.P. of abandoning the quest for truth:
It was a day when several Republican Senators seemed to give up any pretense of digging out the truth in the two starkly opposite stories, and began aggressively attacking Professor Hill.
Dowd's anti-Thomas digs culminated in a ferocious front-page account on October 15, 1991 after Thomas appeared to have survived the assault, accompanied by a headline that left no room for argument: "Republicans Gain in Battle By Getting Nasty Quickly." Ignoring the possibility that Hill had a weak case and Thomas a convincing defense, Dowd lamented the timid tactics of the Democrats, as opposed to the nasty Republicans who just wanted to win:
The Democrats made a pass at figuring out what had happened in the case. The Republicans tried to win. While the Democrats were pronouncing themselves flummoxed by two diametrically opposed stories, the Republicans had already launched a scorched-earth strategy against Professor Hill....Just as they did in the 1988 campaign, the Republicans battered the other side by going ugly early with nasty, personal attacks, by successfully linking the Democrats with liberal advocacy groups and by using volatile images of race.
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