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.

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Specter questioned the validity of her memory eight to 10 years after the events, given that her recollections had changed in recent weeks. As an example, he cited the fact that when she spoke to the FBI agents in late September, she recalled telling only one friend about the alleged sexual harassment. Now, he said, she had two witnesses lined up to testify that she had complained at the time. "If you start to look at each individual problem, then you won't be satisfied that it's true," she said. "But the statement has to be taken as a whole." Then she added forcefully, "There is no motivation to show I'd make up something like this."

On that point, Hill seemed particularly persuasive. Each time committee . members tried to probe her possible motivations for denouncing Thomas publicly, they came up dry. It became clear that it was members of various Senate staffs who had approached Hill, not the other way around. She maintained her silence publicly until her FBI statement fell into reporters' hands on Oct. 5. At that point, she said, "I felt I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent."

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy confronted the issue of motive and asked if she stood to gain in any way from coming forward. "I have nothing to gain here," she said soberly. "This has been disruptive of my life, and I've taken a number of personal risks." She said she had been threatened, though she did not elaborate on the nature or source of the threat. "I have not gained anything except knowing that I came forward and did what I felt that I had an obligation to do," she said. "That was to tell the truth."

The only moment when Hill seemed at all evasive came during an exchange with Specter over an Oct. 9 account in USA Today. In it, Keith Henderson, an old friend of hers who is also a former Senate Judiciary staff member, is quoted as saying Hill was advised by Senate staff members that her FBI affidavit would be the instrument that "quietly and behind the scenes" would force Thomas to withdraw, without her name ever becoming public. Specter pressed her to recall discussing such a scenario with anyone. First she demurred that she did not recall that specific comment. Pressed again, she allowed, "There might have been some conversation about what could possibly occur." On Saturday Specter quickly attacked Hill's change in testimony as "flat-out perjury."

Senators returned to the point, plainly unwilling to accept that Hill had not at least entertained this scenario when she made her statement to the FBI agents. They, like many viewers, could not fathom how Hill would have failed to anticipate that her charges might not remain anonymous and that at some point she might have to face Thomas. When asked by Biden if she considered herself part of an "organized effort" to keep Thomas from the bench, she said, "I had not even imagined that this would occur."

There was one attempt at producing a smoking gun: Specter's presentation of an affidavit by John Doggett, a Yale classmate of Thomas' and a Washington acquaintance of Hill's. In it Doggett alleged that at a going-away party shortly before she left the EEOC, Hill steered him to a quiet corner and chastised him with the words "I am very disappointed in you. You really shouldn't lead on women and then let them down." Doggett called her charge "completely unfounded" and added that he came away "feeling that she was somewhat unstable, and that, in my case, she had fantasized about my being interested in her romantically." Hill responded that she barely knew Doggett and stated flatly, "I did not at any time have any fantasy about romance with him."

When the hearing concluded, everyone who had witnessed Hill's and Thomas' dramatic testimony knew for certain only what they had known at the start: one was telling the truth, and the other was lying. There was no way to imagine a happy ending to this very sad confrontation. For both Hill and Thomas, it was the hardest ordeal of their lives. But one of them was shouldering the burden unfairly — and it may never be known which one. While both had been sullied and injured by the proceedings, only one had been dragged through the mud on the strength of a very convincing lie.

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