The Political Interest Shame on Them All

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From this day forth, the mere mention of Anita Hill's name will conjure an authentic moment, one of those flashes of reality that are seared in the collective consciousness. Brought immediately to mind by a name or place, such instances are rare. Typically, the conditions they connote have long plagued a minority. Then, as epiphanies normally experienced through visual images, they are apprehended by the majority. And then, when an expression of national outrage follows, the attendant demands for redress carry the day.

The sight of young black children entering a previously all-white Little Rock, Ark., school as Army troops stood guard caused millions of Americans to instinctively understand the rightness and the promise of integration. "Bull" Connor's Birmingham cops and dogs signaled the distance still to travel and helped spur the end to de jure segregation. The image of Richard Daley's Chicago cops clubbing peaceful demonstrators in 1968 caused the Democratic Party to reform itself. To hear the words Kent State is to recall how Americans came finally to recognize the lies and dissembling that characterized the Vietnam War's prosecution by two Presidents. More recently, the amateur video of Daryl Gates' Los Angeles cops beating Rodney King sensitized the nation to police brutality.

And now Anita Hill's testimony has awakened men to an issue too few appreciate, and to regulations too few follow. The workplace will never be the same.

Will our politics change as well?

The answer is elusive. Will a yes vote for Clarence Thomas carry political risks comparable to a no vote on the gulf war -- at least among the part of the electorate that judges Hill more credible than Thomas? Will the gender gap that again shows women 5% less likely than men to support President Bush's re- election grow? Will Bush, who has already appointed a record number of women to federal posts, feel compelled to increase the number of female senior White House aides, who now number two of 14? Will more women become candidates for office, and will those already challenging males in the 1992 elections see their prospects brightened? Will significant social legislation be affected? Bush has threatened to veto the parental-leave and civil rights bills on the verge of congressional passage. Will he follow through on those threats, and if he does, will Congress muster the votes required to override those vetoes?

Will Congress finally get with the program and have its workplace governed by the laws that apply in the rest of the nation? Congress has exempted itself from most antidiscrimination statutes. As the matter stands, a congressional staff member who charges sexual harassment can complain only to Congress's ethics committees, which have been notoriously tone deaf to such complaints. (In 1989, for example, Representative Jim Bates, a California Democrat, admitted making lewd remarks and touching female members of his staff. The House ethics committee issued its mildest form of discipline, a letter of reproval.)

Most important, is there any hope of moving away from the corruption that suffuses American politics, a climate of cynicism the Thomas nomination has illuminated from the moment of his selection for the Supreme Court on July 1? At every juncture, the process of considering Thomas' fitness for the court has been a charade.

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