The Unheard Witnesses

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The 1991 face-off between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill was partly a Supreme Court confirmation fight, partly a character-assassination attempt. What's still at issue is whose character was taking the shots. After three days of swampy Senate testimony, most Americans were convinced that Long Dong Silver ; was a man the Bureau of Weights and Measures should know about. Not as many were sure who was telling the truth about Hill's claims that Thomas sexually harassed her when he was the Reagan-appointed head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC and she was a 25-year-old staffer. Though public opinion eventually tilted in Hill's favor, there are still people waiting for the cold-eyed judgment of history to clear things up.

Pending that, the judgment of journalists with book contracts will have to do. Last year David Brock, a writer for the bratty conservative monthly the American Spectator, published The Real Anita Hill, which suggested that Hill was a woman romantically obsessed with Thomas. "Nutty, and a bit slutty," he called her. Now comes Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas (Houghton Mifflin; $24.95), in which Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, reporters for the Wall Street Journal, offer a picture of Thomas as a man possessed by racial resentments and by good-looking female staffers, whose assets he was not above pointing out to them, loudly and often. In other words, nutty and a bit slutty-minded.

The authors conclude that "the preponderance of the evidence suggests" that Thomas lied under oath when he told the committee he had not harassed Hill. Their book doesn't quite nail that conclusion. Yet its portrait of Thomas as an id suffering in the role of a Republican superego is more detailed and convincing than anything that has appeared so far. Which is not to say that the book justifies the waves of hype it rides in on, including a nomination for the National Book Award. For one thing, the crucial stories told by Angela Wright and Rose Jourdain -- two of four women who came to Washington prepared to testify in support of Hill but who were kept waiting by the committee and then dismissed before they could appear -- were first reported more than two years ago.

Mayer and Abramson make their most original contribution in the sections that draw a picture of Thomas' personality, which were based on interviews with dozens of people who knew him. By the time he got to law school at Yale, they write, Thomas was already known "not only for the extreme crudity of his sexual banter, but also for avidly watching pornographic films and reading pornographic magazines, which he would describe to his friends in lurid detail." Acquaintances say when they heard testimony that Thomas had asked who put a pubic hair on his Coke can, they recognized his characteristic style. The proprietor of a Washington video store near EEOC headquarters tells the authors that Thomas was a regular in the X-rated section. A lawyer who knew him then recalls running into Thomas at the register renting The Adventures of Bad Mama Jama. Kaye Savage, a friend who once dropped by the bachelor apartment Thomas took after separating from his first wife, recalls that the walls were covered with Playboy centerfolds.

There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits prospective Supreme Court Justices from decorating their apartments like a college dorm room. But it's not out of order to inquire into the frame of mind of a man accused of sexual harassment, especially when one of his chief lines of defense was that he was too much the straight arrow to have done such a thing. While a truckload of centerfolds would not make Thomas guilty of anything, other than a weakness for erotic redundancy, it might disqualify him as the plaster saint fashioned by his supporters.

Mayer and Abramson blame committee chairman Joseph Biden for the fact that the four women who came to Washington to corroborate Hill's story were never called to testify. In their view, Biden simply abdicated control of the hearings to Republican Senators intent on seeing Thomas confirmed. Yet the fact that the chief witness, Angela Wright, had been fired by Thomas might also have made it easy to dismiss her claims as sour grapes. What we know for certain is that Hill was left as the sole accuser, and Thomas was confirmed, 52 to 48, the narrowest vote for any 20th century Justice. "I'm going to be here for 40 years," Thomas recently told an invited gathering of African Americans. "For those who don't like it, get over it." Get over it? Not likely anytime soon. Not for him. Not for Hill. Not for us.