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Anita Hill Back on Center Stage

April 12, 2016

Many remember the scene 25 years ago as the nation stood riveted in front of the television set as a little known Washington political appointee named Anita Hill tried her best to derail the Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

For many, it was emotionally agonizing to watch Mrs. Clarence Thomas sit stoically behind her husband in the Senate hearing room as he defended himself against Hill’s charges of sexual harassment. The country saw her wipe away the tears as she listened to questions posed to her husband from members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

At the time, Thomas was a Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, an appointment he received after serving as Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EOEC)

Ms. Hill worked for Thomas from 1981-83 at both the Department of Education (as his attorney-adviser), and moved with him to serve as his special assistant at the EOEC.

By all accounts, she was his protégé and Thomas had brought her along politically. He taught her the ways of Washington providing advice and counsel.

The Washington position of “Special Assistant” is a coveted political appointment. A person in such a capacity is usually a trusted and loyal partisan to the superior who makes the appointment (in Hill’s case Thomas).

Not to rehash the confirmation hearings but it’s a good reminder to note that Ms. Hill choose to follow Thomas from agency to agency and rode the success of his career and accepted the political benefits along the way.

We were reminded of the whole sordid affair six years ago when Ms. Hill received a telephone message from Mrs. Thomas on her voice answering machine. She asked Ms. Hill to consider offering an apology, after all these years, for the statements she made to the Judiciary Committee that alleged sexual harassment.

We don’t know why Mrs. Thomas made that telephone contact with Ms. Hill but she had every right to do so. Now, there is a HBO movie called Confirmation coming out which portrays Hill’s 1991 testimony before the Judiciary Committee. This will be a re-live for many but for others it could be their first look at the controversial and emotionally charged hearings that riveted the country at that time.

Ms. Hill’s detractors painted her as an ultra-sensitive individual who was unable to separate fact from fiction. It was on this basis that respected Judiciary Committee member Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a former  prosecutor, made his famous statement, alleging Ms. Hill’s testimony to be, “perjury, flat out”.

Ms. Hill’s reaction to the 2010 voice mail she received from Mrs. Thomas was also ultra-sensitive. The message was calm and rational, and asked a simple question, would she apologize to the nation for what she said about Thomas during the confirmation hearings.

It went like this: “Good morning, Anita Hill. It’s Ginni Thomas. I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. Give it some thought. And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will help us to understand why you did what you did. Okay, have a good day.”

Instead of responding or keeping the matter private, Ms. Hill turned the message over to local law enforcement authorities and asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to investigate the phone call on the grounds that it might represent a threat or constituent a federal crime.

The FBI refused to investigate as the agency saw no crime or threat in the telephone message. Ms. Hill had no national security status thus the FBI didn't pursue the incident on those grounds either.

While the timing of that phone call remains mystifying, Ms. Hill’s response is reminiscent of the person many saw testify against Justice Thomas – someone who magnifies circumstances far beyond what they are in reality.

HBO will no doubt slant the dramatization to make for good television. But it will be hard to surpass the actual drama of those hearings some 25 years ago.