It’s been 27 years since the law professor electrified the nation with her testimony about the sexual harassment she faced from Clarence Thomas, who was then up for confirmation to the Supreme Court.
That hearing was widely considered a disaster, a textbook case of how not to treat a woman who comes forward. Republican senators went after Hill and tried to make her seem like a liar, a mentally ill person and a spiteful jilted lover. But Democrats held the majority at the time, and Biden, then a senator from Delaware, was the chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee and, more than anyone else, could determine the direction and parameters of the discussion.
The fact that it went so badly was in part because of the decisions he made.
With Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh now facing a sexual assault allegation from professor Christine Blasey Ford, who may testify next week, senators are eager to avoid Biden’s missteps.
In other words, one of the biggest mistakes of Biden’s career is being replayed over and over in a closely watched political fight, and it’s being used by his own party as a shameful episode.
Joe Biden needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and think about what they did back then and the long-lasting ramifications it had on a generation of women.
Shaunna Thomas, UltraViolet
Biden, the former vice president, was asked about Hill when he appeared on NBC’s “Today” show on Friday morning with his wife to promote the Biden Cancer Summit.
Biden said Kavanaugh’s accuser, who goes by Christine Blasey professionally, “should not have to go through what Anita Hill went through.” But when asked whether he did enough to help Hill, Biden offered no apologies and defended himself. He expressed “regret” for what happened in 1991 but portrayed himself as Hill’s ally.
“My biggest regret was I didn’t know how I could shut you off if you were a senator and you were attacking Anita Hill’s character,” he said. “Under the Senate rules, I can’t gavel you down and say you can’t ask that question. Although I tried.”
Biden has never apologized to Hill. In November, after hearing that Hill didn’t believe he treated her fairly during the Senate hearing, Biden said he was “so sorry if she believes that.”
“The thing about Biden is he still hasn’t gotten the apology right,” said the Democratic strategist. “Saying you wish you could have done more just doesn’t cut it. That’s like a robber saying, ‘I wish I could have done more to stop the burglar,’ instead of saying, ‘I’m sorry I robbed your house.’”
“Joe Biden needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and think about what they did back then and the long-lasting ramifications it had on a generation of women,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of the progressive women’s group UltraViolet. “As painful as this may be for him, it is far more painful for the women who felt like they could not come forward because of the way his committee treated Dr. Hill. And every senator who might question Dr. Blasey Ford next week needs to take a long, hard look at what happened with Dr. Hill and make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.”
In 1991, most significantly, Biden did not call three other witnesses to testify who could have strengthened Hill’s allegations. But in other ways, too, Hill said she felt like she was left out to dry, without an ally on the committee.
“Most evident from the televised Judiciary Committee hearings was the fact that I sat in that hearing room without a patron on the panel. That image still resonates,” she wrote in a 1995 essay.
From the beginning, Biden said he recognized that Hill’s allegations against Thomas were “a giant incendiary bomb.” But he didn’t act like they were, according to Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, who wrote Strange Justice, a thorough book about the Thomas confirmation battle.
Hill’s allegations became public just days before the Senate was set to vote on Thomas’ confirmation. Biden initially wanted to delay the vote by two weeks, but a GOP senator who was a Thomas supporter convinced him that fairness demanded the proceedings move faster.
Biden scheduled Hill’s testimony for Oct. 11, and agreed that the Judiciary Committee would not take another vote before sending Thomas to the full Senate on Oct. 15 ― a one-week delay. He also said he would keep questions about Thomas’ general sexual conduct ― such as his interest in pornography ― out of the hearings.
Biden also handed a major victory to Republicans in agreeing to let Thomas testify both before and after Hill ― most crucially, scheduling his response to her allegations for 9 p.m. on a Friday, when millions of people were tuned in for their prime-time broadcast.
In the end, Biden voted against Thomas. But when he did so, he said on the Senate floor, “For this senator, there is no question with respect to the nominee’s character.”
In the years afterward, Biden became a champion of women’s rights. Even his critics from the time say he became a stalwart ally, speaking on violence against women and promoting female representation in politics.
But it’s clear that the Hill episode will not go away and that, with Blasey and Kavanaugh in the national spotlight, Biden’s missteps will be long discussed.
“The problem is not just that many voters and activists will be learning about his actions in the Thomas hearings for the first time,” said another Democratic strategist. It’s that he still refuses to acknowledge any regret for those actions. Women are fired up and know that Anita Hill deserved better from the Democrat leading the effort. He should, too.”