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The Hill-Thomas Mystery

The Real Anita Hill: The Untold Story

by David Brock
Free Press, 438 pp., $24.95

Recall the scene before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the fall of 1991, when a nationwide television audience heard two irreconcilable accounts describing what happened between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. Hill testified that Thomas had made sexual overtures to her and had talked of pornography when she worked for him a decade earlier, first at the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of which he was the director. He had spoken to her, she said, of sex scenes from pornographic films—“sex with animals,” “group sex,” “individuals with large penises,” including “Long Dong Silver,” and “individuals with…large breasts.” She testified that he had once asked, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” And she testified that he had told her “graphically of his own sexual prowess,” “referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal,” and spoken “of the pleasures he had given to women with oral sex.”

Thomas “unequivocally, categorically” denied that he ever “had conversations of a sexual nature or about pornographic material with Anita Hill,” or ever “had a personal sexual interest in her.” “This is a person I have helped at every turn in the road since we met,” he testified, and their relationship had been strictly cordial, civil, and professional. When asked where her allegations might have come from, he said he had “been racking my brains” and “eating my insides out” trying to imagine but had no clue. Airing such unfathomable charges before television cameras, he said, was a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”

At the time of the hearings, most of those polled—men and women, black and white—said they believed Thomas and not Hill. Thomas was narrowly confirmed by the Senate and now sits on the Supreme Court for life. But within a year the polls shifted: more people said they believed Hill than Thomas. Hill’s supporters at the time of the hearings had asked rhetorically what motive a former Reagan administration lawyer, from a rural, conservative Baptist background, could possibly have had to come forward under oath before a national television audience and lie. The shift in the polls suggested that most people thought she did not lie after all. This April David Brock published his book claiming that she did lie, and it soon became a national best seller.

1.

In writing The Real Anita Hill: The Untold Story, Brock sifted through the public record of the hearings and of the subsequent Senate investigation of who leaked the Hill story to the press. He also interviewed various witnesses and other sources himself (pro-Thomas witnesses cooperated, pro-Hill witnesses generally did not). He concludes that Anita Hill did not tell the truth. He argues in laborious detail that her case had gaps and inconsistencies that created more than a reasonable doubt in Thomas’s favor. But he does not rest with the negative case. He wants not just to deconstruct Anita Hill’s testimony but to reconstruct “the real Anita Hill.” In his view, she is not the rural conservative Baptist Reaganite the Senate hearings made her out to be, but rather a liberal feminist Democrat who fabricated her charges against Thomas as part of an elaborate political conspiracy to block his appointment to the Court.

Brock has a hard time throughout the book choosing between two different hypotheses to account for Hill’s supposed fabrication: fantasy or perjury. In the most sensational parts of the book, he picks fantasy. In the March 1992 American Spectator article from which the book grew, Brock described Anita Hill as “a bit nutty, and a bit slutty.” He has since recanted this line; appearing on CNN’s Crossfire on June 16, 1993, he said, “Frankly, I regret the word choice there,” and “apologize for that use of language.” But that cannot erase the residue of sexual innuendo in the book.

To take a few examples: Brock quotes a former Oral Roberts University law student who said he had found public hairs in a paper Hill returned to him. He claims that Hill made a pass at a male student at Oral Roberts University, who recalled her as “the world’s kinkiest law professor,” and he quotes an anonymous former visiting law professor at Oklahoma University as claiming that Hill was “obsessed with oral sex,” and fond of talking around the faculty lunch table about “the size of men’s penises,” “firm butts,” and the latest pornographic films. In Brock’s account, Hill was not a prim and proper young woman who needed Clarence Thomas’s unwanted overtures in order to learn about pornography; she was fully capable of calling images of Long Dong Silver forth from her own sex-obsessed imagination.

Labeling women accusers crazy or delusional is a common defense strategy in sexual harassment cases. The senators had a late-night colloquy with a witness, John Doggett, who had known Anita Hill casually and speculated about her possible “erotomania.” But Brock does not dwell on this hypothesis; the salacious passages in the book are comparatively brief. The dominant thesis in the book is more ambitious: that a rational, calculating and even Machiavellian Anita Hill committed conscious perjury deliberately to bring Clarence Thomas down.

Brock’s elaborate perjury theory can be briefly stated. First, Hill had a motive. The seemingly poised and articulate law professor was in fact, Brock asserts, a professional incompetent—someone who was hired on several occasions as a result of affirmative action and who repeatedly found herself out of her professional depth. When she failed at her jobs, Brock claims, she fabricated sexual harassment charges as a cover-up to avoid the shame of acknowledging her inadequacy. For example, when a partner in the now disbanded Washington law firm of Wald, Harkrader & Ross suggested that in view of her unpromising record she would do best to leave her job as an associate, she told friends she was leaving because she had been sexually harassed. Thomas, because a mutual friend (since deceased) had asked him to look after her, rescued her from her failure at the Wald firm by giving her a job at the Department of Education. There, Hill worked closely with Thomas and thought they had a special bond. But when they moved together to the larger and more demanding office at the EEOC, Hill once again, Brock writes, proved to be “not a very good lawyer.” Thomas gave her “grunt work,” and awarded the promotion she coveted to another woman, Allyson Duncan. Thus Brock sketches out a chaste office version of Fatal Attraction, in which not a scorned woman but a scorned protégé is primed for revenge.

Brock adds to this scenario a political motive for revenge as well. Contrary to the press’s misleading portrayal of Hill as a conservative Reaganite—and Hill’s own testimony in answer to Senator Howell Heflin’s friendly questions that she was not a civil rights “militant,” “martyr,” or “hero”—she was in fact, according to Brock, a liberal, feminist Democrat who was a “zealot for the cause of civil rights.” To this “real Anita Hill,” Brock writes, the increasingly conservative, quota-bashing, welfare-baiting EEOC Chairman Thomas appeared to be a “traitor to his race,” a “hypocrite who had profited from affirmative action and then tried to eliminate these preferences for others,” a man “who had turned his back on his own disadvantaged roots and knowingly undermined the cause of civil rights at the EEOC.” Life among left-leaning colleagues at Oklahoma University Law School helped to sharpen Hill’s resentment and to intensify her ideological vendetta.

Then, in Brock’s version, came Hill’s moment of opportunity. When Thomas was nominated in July 1991, Hill’s old friend and Yale Law School classmate Susan Hoerchner, a workers’ compensation judge in California, telephoned Hill and asked her if Thomas wasn’t the “pig” who, Hill had confided, had harassed her back in 1981. Hoerchner’s memory was confused, says Brock. When she later repeated her story to Senate investigators, she dated her conversation with Hill about harassment to the spring of 1981. But that was several months before Hill had started working for Thomas. If Hill had told Hoerchner in spring 1981 that she was being harassed, Brock writes, then it must have been by some other man than Thomas—or maybe Hill, in telling of harassment, was referring only to the phony cover story she had made up in order to avoid admitting she had been asked to leave Wald, Harkrader & Ross.

Hill, according to Brock, should have known that if Hoerchner had the right date she had the wrong man. But she did not try to correct Hoerchner’s suggestion. Why? Either her tendency to blame her professional problems on sexual harassment had made it “hard for her to keep her stories straight in her own mind” or she had come to depend on Hoerchner as a handy contemporaneous witness who could corroborate her plotted fabrication.

The final element in Brock’s elaborate theory is an alleged conspiracy by members of a liberal-left power elite to drag Hill’s sexual-harassment story to public light. Who are the conspirators? “A loose coalition,” Brock writes, “of special-interest lobby groups, zealous Senate staffers, and a scandal-hungry press corps” which he calls “the Shadow Senate.” This group, determined among other things to block conservative nominees to the Court, had come to power by “borking” Judge Robert Bork in 1987 and now was trying to “bork” Clarence Thomas too. Frustrated by their inability to bring down Thomas on the merits, its members sniffed for scandal, and hit paydirt with Anita Hill.

Hill’s story that she had been harassed by Thomas, according to Brock, was floated in Washington on the liberal cocktail-party circuit, where Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, which was lobbying against Thomas, picked it up from a “still-unidentified guest.” She passed the story on to Senator Edward Kennedy’s aide Ricki Seidman and Senator Howard Metzenbaum’s staffer James Brudney, a Yale Law School classmate of Hill’s, who tried to persuade Hill to talk. Brudney supposedly used his close friendship and “special influence” with Hill to lure her into telling her story to the Senate—first by misleading her by telling her she could do so anonymously, and then by having two feminist lawyers induce her to write a signed statement which she faxed to the committee. Finally, Brock alleges, “the confidential charges were leaked to the media by Senator [Paul] Simon and Jim Brudney, the true villains of the piece.” (Brock purports to draw this conclusion from documents in the public record, even though Peter Fleming, the Senate’s own independent counsel in charge of an exhaustive investigation of the leak following the hearings, declined to reach such a conclusion.) Newsday‘s Tim Phelps and National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg broke the story in the press. Thus, Brock’s perjury theory concludes, Hill’s vengeful fib snowballed unexpectedly into a command performance on national TV.

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