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The Hill-Thomas Mystery


How can we evaluate Brock’s theory? It is tempting to begin with Ockham’s razor, and to say that the simpler explanation must be the more believable. On this view, Brock’s theory is too complicated by half. First, consider the book’s pivotal moment, Hoerchner’s phone call to Hill recalling their conversation about harassment in 1981. Wouldn’t it be far simpler, as many have suggested, to suppose that Hoerchner got the date wrong, not the identity of the man? Ten years is a long time to remember dates with precision but not the name of a fairly well-known government official whose actions had upset a friend. And what triggered her memory was hearing Thomas’s name on television, not any discussion about the year 1981. And if Hill really had wanted to fabricate a sexual harassment story about Thomas, as Brock suggests, why wouldn’t she plant the right date with her ally Hoerchner, rather than let her wander into the Senate vulnerable to immediate impeachment? Only the truth could be as messy as the story Brock describes as false.

Second, none of Brock’s elaborate hypotheses erases one simple basic fact: if Hill was lying, she was taking an enormous gamble by perjuring herself on national television. It is important to remember that she had no reason to suppose she would later become what Brock archly calls “The Woman of the Year.” That she would be “canonized” as the “Rosa Parks of sexual harassment” could not have been predicted in advance; the political outcry for reopening the hearings took the Senate and the nation by surprise. At the moment she stepped under the lights, she had everything to lose. In the law of evidence, the fact that a statement is against self-interest is usually considered strongly probative of its truth. Brock dismisses this line of argument by saying that she never meant to go on television; she thought she could pull off a coup behind the scenes. But if that were so, why wouldn’t she have more quickly and firmly declined to tell her story in public, before it went so far?

Ockham’s razor aside, the very same critical methods used by David Brock can be applied to his own book. One method would be to subject each gap and inconsistency in his own factual construction to the same intense scrutiny he applied to Anita Hill’s case. This task has been undertaken by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, two Wall Street Journal reporters who are writing their own book on the Clarence Thomas nomination, entitled Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. In “The Surreal Anita Hill,” an article in the May 17 issue of The New Yorker, Mayer and Abramson convincingly dispute a number of Brock’s factual inferences.

Here are only a few of the many points in Brock’s reasoning that Mayer and Abramson undercut. As to the story of a student of Hill’s that he found public hair in his paper, Brock’s witness, Lawrence Shiles, told them he had not come forward on his own but had been dragged from a hunting trip by Republican Senate staff members one Sunday morning to sign an affidavit. And Brock’s supposed corroborating witness, Jeff Londoff, told Mayer and Abramson that the public-hair story had been a joke (“The lady’s black, you know; she’s got kinky hair”). As for John Burke, Brock’s key witness for the claim that Hill was fired from Wald, Harkrader & Ross, Mayer and Abramson show he was not himself responsible for supervising Hill’s work; they suggest he may have mixed up Hill in his memory with another young black first-year woman associate who they know had difficulty at the firm that year. As to Hill’s supposedly close relationship with Jim Brudney, Mayer and Abramson’s research shows they had no social relationship while they were both in Washington, having “bumped into” each other only once. Brock’s sources were surely wrong in saying Hill spent weekends at Brudney’s apartment “in Foggy Bottom,” for he lived in Adams Morgan, several neighborhoods away.

Of course, to demonstrate such weaknesses in Brock’s evidence is not to prove that everything he said is false. But Mayer and Abramson echo Brock himself when they argue that the accumulation of many small inaccuracies raises doubt about the veracity of the whole. Their review in The New Yorker set off a series of exchanges, whose proliferating detail begins to rival that of the book itself. On May 20, Brock sent an eight-page single-spaced letter of complaint to The New Yorker, which declined to print it. On June 14, The New Yorker fact-checking department outdid Brock by issuing a twenty-three-page memo supporting Mayer and Abramson on every point. Tina Brown sent that memo on to Brock’s publisher with a cover letter expressing confidence that the review was “factually sound” as well as “fair and accurate.” Rebuffed by The New Yorker, Brock then revised his rebuttal for publication in the August issue of The American Spectator under the title “Jane and Jill and Anita Hill.”

In this last round, Brock has made one formal retraction and beaten a few small informal retreats. The retraction concerns Catharine MacKinnon; Brock now admits, under pressure not only from Mayer and Abramson but also from MacKinnon and her lawyer, that the law professor whom he calls “a leading activist in the feminist crusade” did not, after all, advise Hill during the Senate hearings. Brock also appears to admit that “the extent of the acquaintance” between Hill and Jim Brudney might not have been as great as he suggested. He concedes Mayer and Abramson’s point that Angela Wright—the “other woman” who was prepared to testify that Clarence Thomas talked dirty at the office, but never appeared before the committee—did, contrary to his previous claim, swear to the truth of her statements to the Senate, and did speak to the FBI. He also backs off his earlier claim that Judge Patricia Wald of the DC Circuit was “close to” Senator Simon and thus must have been the conduit through whom the liberal conspiracy suppressed the history of Hill’s record at the firm in which her husband, Robert Wald, was the senior partner.

Faced with Mayer and Abramson’s claim that Wald and Simon had “never met,” Brock in his first rebuttal memo held fast (“Might they have spoken on the telephone?”) but in his revised rebuttal for The American Spectator drops the point, retreating to the suggestion that maybe Wald whispered these things to Senator Kennedy instead. Although Brock has been forced to acknowledge some mistakes, perhaps the only clear outcome of this controversy is that it will sell more books; Brock echoes the Free Press advertisements when he urges readers “to examine my book, their article, and decide for themselves.”

A second way to evaluate the book that we might, again, borrow directly from Brock is to engage in “the search for a motive”—this time Brock’s, not Hill’s. Why did Brock resurrect this story? His answer is simply that he wants to tell the truth. The same answer was also Anita Hill’s. One other possible motive might be to vindicate Justice Thomas’s reputation, although one may wonder whether stirring up the ashes of this debate really does him any favor.

If we look at Brock’s own politics with as much suspicion as he looked at Hill’s, however, we may conclude that some other motive underlies the book: namely, to carry out an ideological vendetta. Much has been made of Brock’s association with right-wing organizations: the Heritage Foundation, The American Spectator, The Washington Times, the Olin Foundation, whose chair headed a lobbying group supporting the Thomas nomination. Some have argued that these associations cast doubt on his claim to have approached the Anita Hill story with “an open mind.” Brock has cried foul here, and he has a point; such ties do not prove bias. Liberal journalists would surely object if such stereotypes were used to discredit their own work. But one need not search Brock’s résumé for evidence of his political views—one need only read his book.

The Real Anita Hill often reads less like a work of investigative journalism than a tract in a cultural war. It is peppered with stock phrases from the vocabulary of the current cultural right wing: liberal groups favor “abortion on demand”; Hill’s former colleagues insist on anonymity when they criticize her because in academic circles supporting Hill has become “politically correct”; feminists call themselves liberal but are “really deeply hostile to the Western liberal tradition,” and so forth. More important than its rhetoric is its central thesis: the real target of the book is not so much Anita Hill as the “left-liberal” establishment. Indeed, Brock goes out of his way on many occasions to minimize Hill’s guilt and responsibility for what happened, suggesting that she, too, was a “victim” or a pawn of the liberal conspirators who were the “true villains of the piece.” This attempt to show that others besides Hill were responsible for her testimony makes the plot line of Brock’s book less coherent but reveals his real concern.

Brock portrays this supposed left-liberal-feminist establishment as made up of zealous and intolerant enforcers of a “politically correct” agenda, willing to pursue its ends by any means. What are its ends? First, to preserve “three decades” of judicial victory for “liberal social policies.” Anyone challenging this orthodoxy, according to Brock, was to be “borked.” (Free Press publisher Erwin Glikes noted in a recent letter to the editor in The New York Times that The Real Anita Hill was originally titled The Borking of Clarence Thomas.) Brock’s book seeks to vindicate Thomas’s claim that he was “lynched” for his “uppity” conservative views. Brock is unmistakably sympathetic to Thomas’s position opposing affirmative action; for example, he writes patronizingly of Hill as “a victim” of “preferential admissions and hiring policies”—she is for him a casualty of affirmative action scarred with a negative “self-image” and “a permanent chip on her shoulder” by her failure to perform adequately in Thomas’s meritocratic shop. Brock seems now and then even to identify himself with Thomas; while he hasn’t charged that he is himself the victim of a “high-tech lynching,” he has complained that the liberal-dominated press and television have tried to suppress his views as politically incorrect. He complains in his forthcoming American Spectator piece, for example, that “apparently I may not appear on television unless accompanied by someone who will brand my book a lie at the very moment it is being presented to the public.”

Brock overstates his case. The liberal establishment he conjures up is hardly as monolithic or powerful as he makes out. Putting Anita Hill’s charges aside, the Senate itself, after all, voted for Clarence Thomas after hearing testimony from him that might be thought to call into question his judicial qualifications. He claimed, for example, that he had in all his years as a public official never discussed the decision in Roe v. Wade.1 Brock also fails to mention the powerful conservative counterparts of his liberal Shadow Senate: the coalition of conservative lobbyists and press commentators, for example, who recently blocked the appointment to a post in the Justice Department of President Clinton’s nominee Lani Guinier. As for Brock’s own claims that he’s a victim, how does he explain the generally positive reviews he has received (and otherwise seems pleased to cite) in The Washington Post and The New York Times?

  1. 1

    See Ronald Dworkin’s article on Thomas’s views, “Justice for Clarence Thomas,” The New York Review, November 7, 1991.

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