Clarence Thomas: A Question of Character

Thomas and Anita Hill were both known for truthfulness and integrity -- until now A Real Straight Arrow

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Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas

Anita Hill's accusations against Clarence Thomas raised the question of sexual harassment to national prominence, only to reduce it again to its toughest and most intractable kernel: her word against his. Neither Hill nor Thomas was able to bring decisive evidence before the committee last week to support their widely differing versions of their dealings in the past. Thus the evidence of character counts all the more heavily. But even that appeared to weigh equally on both sides. Based on their backgrounds, Hill and Thomas seemed to be the two least likely people in the world to be involved in an exchange of accusations about sexual misconduct or false charges. Both have devoted their lives to hard work and public service. He is said to be sensitive to women. She has a reputation for integrity. One of them is lying.

If Clarence Thomas had been a woman, he might have been Anita Hill. The childhood without much money, the hard work that led to college and Yale Law School, the career achievements in the private sector and public service that followed — much of Thomas' up-by-the-bootstraps life story has its equivalents in hers. And just as his reputation for integrity makes the charges against him hard to believe, her reputation makes them hard to dismiss. "She is scrupulous, conscientious and ethical beyond reproach," says Teree Foster, associate dean of the University of Oklahoma's law school.

Among most of the people whose paths Hill has crossed, she has left behind the impression of quiet but unquestionable achievement and a sober but not solemn disposition. She dates, though not a lot. She enjoys a laugh, though she doesn't tell the jokes. The youngest of 13 children in a devout Baptist family, she grew up near Morris, Okla., a small town (pop. 1,200) where her father raised cattle and farmed cotton, soybeans and peanuts on 240 acres. She remains close to her family, most of whom flew to Washington last week to support her. For her father, now 79, it was the first trip on an airplane.

Though reserved, Hill was popular among classmates at Morris High School, finding time for the Pep Club and the Future Homemakers of America before graduating as valedictorian. "She was so smart it wasn't even funny," recalls Bill Bearden Sr., the former basketball coach. "She was very polite, well groomed and never missed a day of school." At Oklahoma State University, she majored in psychology, and graduated with honors in 1977. "We were both country bumpkins," says former roommate Susan Clark. "We socialized, but not to the extreme of getting rowdy."

After earning a law degree from Yale in 1980, also with honors, Hill spent a year in private practice in Washington before being hired as special counsel to Clarence Thomas at the Department of Education's office for civil rights. She had reservations about living in Washington, which seemed too loose and unbuckled a place. "She was a real straight arrow," says Michael Middleton, who worked with both Hill and Thomas at the Department of Education and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Very proper and straitlaced. She was certainly no bimbo."

In 1982 Hill followed Thomas to the EEOC as his special assistant, but surprised colleagues a year later by leaving to take a job as law professor at Oral Roberts University. Five years ago, she moved over to the University of Oklahoma, where she specializes in commercial law, one of the least glamorous subtopics of a buttoned-down field. Hill is happiest when teaching contract law, discussing how to promote economic development on Indian reservations, or writing papers on topics like "The Relative Nature of Property in the Context of Bankruptcy." She works on the faculty senate and the dean's committee and advises minority students, often inviting them to dinner at her modest one-story brick house.

Hill, who is single, allows few diversions from her work. But her friends insist that she has never been prudish or hypersensitive. "She was not a church mouse," says William Kennard, a Washington lawyer who was a close friend at Yale. Bill Hassler is a Washington attorney who was a friend of Hill's at law school, where he would confide to her the details of his romantic ups and downs. She would listen, he recalls, without embarrassment. "I wouldn't hesitate to invite her to an R-rated movie," he says.

Hill gives no signs of having a political ax to grind. "She's a scholar in commercial law," says law professor Harry Tepker, a colleague at Oklahoma. "That's not exactly the sort of field that firebrands go into." Those who know her describe her as both a conservative and a feminist but not an ideologue in either area. "I suspect she's a card-carrying Republican," says Joel Paul, a friend who recalls arguments in which Hill would loudly support Judge Robert Bork's unsuccessful nomination to the Supreme Court. "She is cut from the same political cloth as Thomas."