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

  • 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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    Urged by Biden to recall her most embarrassing encounter with Thomas, Hill responded, "His discussion of pornography involving these women with large breasts and engaged in a variety of sex with different people or animals." Under questioning, she also recalled an exchange in Thomas' office where Thomas alluded to the large penis of an actor in a pornographic film by referring to the character's name.

    "Do you recall what it was?" pressed Senator Biden.

    "Yes, I do." Hill, permitting herself a rare display of emotion, wrinkled her nose in disgust. "The name that was referred to was Long Dong Silver." Hatch, who emerged as one of the panel's most aggressive interrogators, later dug up a 1988 decision by a federal appeals court in Tulsa, citing an obscene photograph of a character by that name. Hatch suggested it was this court case that had brought the name to Hill's attention — not Clarence Thomas.

    Hill was also quite specific about her last encounter with Thomas, in 1983, while still an employee at the EEOC. Up until then, she said, she had declined all social invitations from Thomas, explaining to the Senators that she had repeatedly told him she did not feel it was appropriate to date her supervisor. But this was her last day at the EEOC before proceeding to a teaching post at Oklahoma's Oral Roberts University. So, she said, after he "assured me that the dinner was a professional courtesy only," they went to a restaurant after work. "He made a comment I vividly remember," she said. "He said that if I ever told anyone of his behavior, that it would ruin his career."

    The most moving aspect of Hill's testimony was the vivid portrait she painted of the vulnerability, humiliation and frustration she experienced while working under such conditions. "It wasn't as though it happened every day," Hill explained. "But I went to work during certain periods knowing that it might happen." She spoke of her fear of being squeezed out of good assignments, losing her job, maybe even not being able to find any job at all within the Reagan Administration if she continued to resist Thomas' alleged overtures. At one point, she said, the stress she experienced from the tension of her relationship with Thomas caused her to be hospitalized for five days with acute stomach pains.

    Although the panel of male Senators seemed to have an especially hard time with this part of Hill's testimony, her tale struck a resonant chord with countless women across America. Judith Resnick, a law professor at the University of Southern California Law Center, characterized Hill's testimony: "You're seeing a paradigm of a sexual-harassment case."

    | The point most rigorously pursued by the Senate panel, particularly Pennsylvania's Senator Arlen Specter, the chief Republican interrogator on the committee, was why Hill decided in 1982 to follow Thomas from the Education Department to the EEOC. At that point, Hill said, she thought "the sexual overtures which had so troubled me had ended." Besides, she noted, there was talk that President Reagan was thinking of phasing out the Education Department, and she feared she might wind up jobless.

    Once she got to the EEOC, Hill said, the overtures from Thomas resumed. If that was true, Senators wondered, then why in the years since she turned to teaching had she remained in touch with Thomas? Hill said she saw little harm in maintaining cordial relations with Thomas now that she no longer worked with him and no longer felt threatened by him. "I did not feel that it was necessary to cut off all ties or to burn all bridges or to treat him in a hostile manner," she said. "If I had done that, I would have had to explain this whole situation that I've come forward with today."

    Specter made much of the fact that while at Oral Roberts University, Hill remained friendly enough with Thomas to volunteer to drive him to the airport on one occasion. She suggested that the university's founding dean, Charles Kothe, had asked her to do so. (Kothe was not only her boss at that time but a good friend of Thomas' as well.) She visited Thomas another time after she left the EEOC, she explained, to get a recommendation from him. And what of the 11 phone calls she made to Thomas over a six-year period, publicized earlier in the week by Thomas' Senate champion, Republican John Danforth of Missouri? Those, she explained, were work-related calls, and each "was made in a professional context."

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