Hill Vs. Thomas: An Ugly Circus

Into the arena there came two gladiators, fourteen Senators and an audience of millions. But could anyone possibly declare victory when the spectacle was so repellent?

  • (l. to r.) Jennifer Law / AFP / Getty Images; Brad Markel / Liaison / Getty Images

    Anita Hill, left, takes the oath before testifying; Judge Clarence Thomas listens during his confirmation hearing.

    The United States Senate is not a circus that children should attend. It is far too dangerous. Last week, as the lawmakers presided over the public evisceration of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, it became clear that this was a circus with an ancient history stretching back to the days when people were fed to lions. This was the kind with real victims, and no nets.

    Hour after hour, an intensely personal drama was played out under achingly bright lights and devoured by tens of millions around the world. In a sense, America caught its first glimpse of the real Clarence Thomas, heard his voice for the first time after 100 days of confirmation torture. Gone were the handlers and the fancy advisers who had told him that when questioned about the most important legal issues of the day, he should hide his beliefs at all costs. Last week he sat there alone, reduced to surviving on discipline and guts and the memory of past victories hard won. It was difficult to listen to him slash at the Senators for their betrayal and not view him as the victim of terrible harm.

    And then there was Professor Anita Hill, the poised daughter of so many generations of black women who have been burned carrying torches into the battle for principle. The cause of civil rights and social justice has so often fallen to them to defend. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were slaves by birth, freedom fighters by temperament. Rosa Parks was a tired seamstress who shoved history forward by refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Mechelle Vinson was a bank teller who, having grown weary of a boss who she said forced her to trade sex for professional survival, won the unanimous Supreme Court decision that established the laws on sexual harassment once and for all. The latest to claim her place in line is Anita Hill, a private, professional woman unwilling to relinquish her dignity without a fight.

    Even after listening to all the anguished testimony, who could ever feel confident that they knew what really happened? Which one was a liar of epic proportion? This was not a forum that lent itself to justice or even a fearless search for truth. The U.S. Senate is a stage normally reserved for politicians debating war and peace and issues draped in high ideals. It is not a forum accustomed to interrogations about large-breasted women having sex with animals.

    The questions came from a group of Senators who had been disfigured by a failure of both intellect and empathy. Faced with a wounded woman, 14 men merely turned their heads. The most generous explanation is that it was more a political lapse than a human one. But even when the legal arguments and public outcry followed, it took considerable patient explaining to show the distinguished members that they had made a travesty of the confirmation process and a mess of two people's lives.

    When the circus tent opened, there sat a row of white men, some of great stature, who made every effort to disappear behind the thin silhouette of their microphones. Here were career public servants, never camera shy, being forced to ask questions like "Professor Hill, now that you have read the FBI report, you can see that it contains no reference to any mention of Judge Thomas' private parts or sexual prowess. Why didn't you tell the FBI about that?" Having begun the week under fire for their sexism, the Senators ended the week accused of acting like a high-tech lynch mob. "I would have preferred an assassin's bullet," Thomas declared, to the ordeal they had reserved for him.

    And finally there was the vast national audience, transfixed by testimony | that seeped into every conversation. The tragedy might at least have a valuable legacy if it left America's workers with a higher code of conduct to take into their jobs every day. But the actual spectacle left the watcher feeling demeaned and humiliated and terribly sad. So much substance was at stake, and so many symbols, that it almost seemed preferable to call it all off and go home before any more damage was done. In the end, of course, there would be no winners, only scars.