Smearing Anita Hill: A Writer Confesses

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Carol T. Powers / New York Times / Redux

Journalist David Brock

Washington had never been quite so raw, quite so ugly. The Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991 — once law-school professor Anita Hill reluctantly came forward to accuse Thomas of sexual harassment — became one of those events we'll still be arguing about over soft food in the nursing home. They were the first hearings for high stakes played with no rules. The proceedings felt to Thomas like "a high-tech lynching," to Anita Hill like character assassination. (Republicans dredged up the infamous John Doggett 3d, a lawyer who testified that Hill was an erotomaniac for thinking he would ever condescend to date her.) To the rest of us, the hearings felt like must-see TV. Hill said Thomas was a frequent consumer of pornography whose conversations with the female staff were laced with sexually suggestive remarks. It is moot whether that constituted sexual harassment. But Republicans, by their vociferous denials, suggested that demonstrating the first would prove the other. To prevent a Thomas defeat, they had to show that Long Dong Silver was a figment of Hill's X-rated imagination.

Thomas denied Hill's accusations, few witnesses were called to support her (she wasn't the nominee) and the nominee was confirmed, 52 to 48. But that didn't settle the mystery at the heart of those hearings. In front of the whole country and under oath, one of two people had lied. Since one of those people is now a Supreme Court Justice who cast a vote making George W. Bush President, the point is far from moot. And last week the mystery took another turn, thanks to former American Spectator character assassin David Brock, the man designated by the right to destroy Hill's reputation and scrub Thomas'. Brock confesses in a Talk magazine excerpt of his new book, Blinded by the Right, that he had printed "virtually every derogatory and often contradictory allegation" he could to make Hill seem "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." If that was all Brock did, we might have nothing more than another sin committed on behalf of the vast right-wing conspiracy. But Brock, who has forged a second career as a recovering conservative, makes one admission that implicates Thomas. Brock says he used information that came indirectly from Thomas to force a retraction from a woman named Kaye Savage, who had come forward in support of Hill. Brock threatened to publicize vicious charges made by her ex-husband in a sealed child-custody dispute.

In an interview with TIME last week, Savage recalled her meeting with Brock in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington in 1994. A book titled Strange Justice, by reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, had just come out — and it used on-the-record interviews to argue persuasively that Thomas had indeed subjected a number of women to frequent sexually explicit remarks about porno videos. Savage, a black mid-level aide in the Reagan Administration, told both the authors and the Judiciary Committee (although she wasn't called to testify publicly) that when she went to Thomas' apartment in the early 1980s, the place was littered with graphic photos of nude women. When Savage met Brock, she says, he let her know he could ruin her. "He knew all this personal stuff," she says. "He wanted me to take back what I had said. I couldn't — it was true — but I was intimidated, and so I faxed him something innocuous. I was scared."

Two people knew the details of Savage's divorce battle — her friends Hill and Thomas. Was there any way Brock could have got this information from Hill? "Absolutely not," Savage says. "Anita's mother brought vegetables in her suitcase to my house to cook dinner. They both know my children. They are my friends." Brock says he knows where the dirt came from — Thomas, by way of a mutual friend, former White House assistant counsel Mark Paoletta. Brock met Thomas at Paoletta's house when one of Paoletta's children was being christened (Thomas is a godfather) and claims Paoletta later told him Thomas regularly rented porn videos, knowing Brock wouldn't use it, since they were "on the same team." Paoletta didn't return TIME's calls but gave an incomplete denial to the New York Times, saying that Thomas "did not ask me" to pass along the dirt (but not that he didn't give it to him) and that he didn't know whether Thomas rented videos from a specific store.

When do you believe Brock — then or now? Lying is easy. Recanting is hard. Brock Then was a lone, unverifiable challenge to what Mayer calls "the facts as we always knew them to be." Brock Now provides enough detail to fact-check his current version. Even if that version proves true, Thomas probably broke no law. But nominees for the Supreme Court should meet a higher standard than that.