Sex, Lies and Politics: He Said, She Said

As the nation looks on, two credible, articulate witnesses present irreconcilable views of what happened nearly a decade ago

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Terry Ashe / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Clarence Thomas is sworn in on the first day of his confirmation hearing, September, 1991.

It was hard to imagine two more unlikely or reluctant witnesses. On one side of the divide was Anita Hill, 35, a specialist in the dry area of commercial law, a reserved woman who by all accounts is given more to listening than to talking. On the other was Clarence Thomas, 43, a courtly man who from his college days has enjoyed a reputation for treating women with particular courtesy and respect. Yet there she was, this prim law professor from the University of Oklahoma, seated in the glare of klieg lights before the Senate Judiciary Committee, calmly detailing graphic charges of sexual harassment against the man who until last week seemed virtually certain to be confirmed as the next Justice to the Supreme Court.

He said, "I have not said or done the things Anita Hill has alleged."

She said, "I am not given to fantasy. This is not something I would have come forward with if I was not absolutely sure of what I was saying."

For witnesses to this spectacle, whether there in the Senate Caucus Room or at home in their living rooms, deciding who was telling the truth was all but impossible. Viewers had to weigh the testimony of two admirable people — both of whom had escaped, through diligence and perseverance, a background of rural poverty to scale great heights, both of whom are known to be grounded in strong religious and spiritual values, both of whom have reputations for great personal integrity — and pronounce one of them a liar. In the final analysis, it would come down to this: the specificity of Hill's charges against the intensity of Thomas' denials.

Before the days of exhausting and exhaustive testimony would end, Hill would coolly and impassively detail the nature of Thomas' alleged harassment while she worked for him in government positions from 1981 to 1983. Words like "penis" and "breasts" and "pubic hair" would enter the public record repeatedly in so somber and untitillating a fashion that no one in the hearing room would blanch, let alone smirk or giggle. It was clear that the differences in the Hill and Thomas versions on what transpired a decade ago were not a simple matter of differing sensibilities — oversqueamishness on her part vs. bad taste on his. If Hill's description of Thomas' words and actions was truthful, then the Supreme Court nominee was guilty of sexual harassment in the past and perjury in the present. If Hill's account was a flight of fantasy, then she was delusional and a candidate for medical attention.

During Saturday's session, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch aimed squarely at the accuser, implying that Hill was working in tandem with "slick lawyers" bent on destroying Thomas' chances to join the court. Thomas appeared to endorse that view when committee chairman Joseph Biden asked if he believed that Hill had fabricated a tale of sexual harassment. "Some interest groups came up with this story, and this story was developed specifically to destroy me," the nominee responded.

In the course of the hearing, which Thomas angrily characterized as "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks," other witnesses would come forward. Some would try to buttress Hill's charges either by affirming that she had complained of sexual harassment at the time of the alleged incidents or by putting forward their own allegations of misconduct by Thomas. Others would seek to cast doubt on Hill's testimony either by dredging up recollections that conflicted with hers or by offering stories that aimed to weaken Hill's credibility.

But nothing was likely to match the devastating effect of both Hill's and Thomas' testimony. Cool and unflappable, Hill looked the Senators in the eye and handled every question without hesitation. Her hands folded on the lap of her teal blue dress, her demeanor polite, cooperative and never defensive, she painted a vivid and sobering portrait of what it means to be victimized by sexual harassment — from the fears, embarrassments and humiliations she experienced to the repercussions it had on her work, health and career choices. Given the detail and consistency of her testimony, it was almost inconceivable that Hill, rather than describing her own experiences, was fabricating the portrait of a sexual-harassment victim.

No less poignant, searing or believable, however, were Thomas' anguished statements and adamant denials. In his opening remarks — which he wrote himself, by a friend's account, after telling the White House to "butt out" — he said he felt "shocked, surprised, hurt and enormously saddened" on learning of Hill's charges. While Hill would maintain that he had asked her out five to 10 times during the period in question, he denied that he had ever asked her for even a single date. Rather, he said, Hill was someone he had helped at every turn, someone he considered a friend. That accusations of harassment should come from her seemed to him particularly hurtful. "During the past two weeks," he said, "I lost the belief that if I did my best, all would work out."

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