What Joe Biden Hasn’t Owned up to About Anita Hill
As the Times reported this week, shortly before Biden announced his candidacy, on Thursday, he called Hill and, according to a statement from his campaign, conveyed “his regret for what she endured.” Biden evidently hoped to neutralize any lingering political damage from his chairing of the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings where Hill accused Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, of sexually harassing her. Thomas forcefully denied her account. As Biden presided, the hearings devolved into a shocking showdown in which Thomas and his defenders did all they could to degrade Hill’s character and destroy her credibility, accusing her, with no real evidence, of being a liar, a fantasist, and an erotomaniac.
The hearings uprooted the rest of her life. A cautious law professor who had initially declined to testify when first contacted by the Senate, Hill was transformed into a symbol and catalyst for the #MeToo movement in support of sexual-harassment victims, decades before it had a name.
Biden’s recent, half-hearted condolence call to Hill, and his subsequent statements, however, have reignited rather than quelled the controversy. Hill told the Times that she believed the issue isn’t politically disqualifying for Biden but that he needs to take more responsibility for the damage done not only to her but to other sexual-harassment victims. She drew a connection between her experience and that of Christine Blasey Ford, whose credibility was similarly assailed when, during the Senate confirmation hearings of another Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, Ford was impugned as she testified that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when the two were in high school. In Hill’s view, Biden had “set the stage” for the hearings in which Kavanaugh, like Thomas, was narrowly confirmed after his defenders trashed his accuser’s credibility and dismissed her allegations without a thorough investigation.
Rather than heeding Hill’s call for a fuller mea culpa, Biden instead dug himself in deeper during a visit to ABC’s morning show “The View,” on Friday. Predictably, Biden was asked if he should have given Hill a fuller and more personal apology. Biden again stopped short of blaming himself, saying, “I did everything in my power to do what I thought was within the rules.” He then added, “I don’t think I treated her badly.”
Biden failed to acknowledge that, as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, he set many of “the rules” that damaged Hill and determined the over-all fairness of the process. As Jill Abramson and I reported in our 1994 book about the Thomas confirmation fight, “Strange Justice,” several of Biden’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate later acknowledged that, in his eagerness to be impeccably fair to all sides, Biden got outmaneuvered by the Republicans. That left Hill and, ultimately, the truth undefended. As Howard Metzenbaum, a crusty Democrat from Ohio, later admitted, “Joe bent over too far backwards to accommodate the Republicans, who were going to get Thomas on the Court come hell or high water.” Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts liberal whose own womanizing eroded his credibility, was more critical still, saying, “Biden agreed to the terms of the people who were out to disembowel Hill.”
Even one of the top lawyers on Biden’s Senate staff at the time, Cynthia Hogan, now faults their handling of the hearings. As she admitted this week to the Washington Post, “What happened is we got really politically outplayed by the Republicans.” Hogan, now the vice-president for public policy for the Americas at Apple, explained that Biden had wanted to be seen as a neutral arbiter, while the Republicans instead wanted to win. “They came with a purpose, and that purpose was to destroy Anita Hill. Democrats did not coordinate and they did not prepare for battle. I think he would say that that’s what should be done differently.”
This meant that from the moment rumors first reached the Senate, in the summer of 1991, that Thomas had sexually harassed Hill when he was her supervisor at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she was left open to political attack. In contrast, Thomas had the full-throated defense of George H. W. Bush’s White House and Republican members of the Senate, and an array of conservative political groups also rallied to the nominee’s defense.
Thomas’s defenders portrayed Hill as having carefully plotted to bring him down, but, in fact, she twice declined to discuss her allegations with Senate staffers when they contacted her. Eventually, she agreed to do so out of a sense of “duty” to tell the government the truth. She also agreed to share her story only if her name was kept confidential, and with the understanding—which proved false—that her account was one of several such allegations the Senate was investigating.
Biden wasn’t alone in the Senate in underestimating the seriousness of Hill’s charges. When Metzenbaum first heard Hill’s account that Thomas, as her boss, pressured her for dates and subjected her to graphic sexual conversations, he told a reporter that half the Senate also was guilty of sexual harassment.
The staffers working for Metzenbaum and Kennedy, however, took Hill’s allegations more seriously and were the first to reach out to her. They urged Biden’s staff to talk to Hill as well. But the effort languished in Biden’s office, where his staff followed his personal rules, which went beyond those of the Senate. The aide who investigated the claim, for instance, declined to call Hill, requiring that Hill instead initiate contact. Once they spoke, the aide declined to act on Hill’s allegation unless Hill consented to Biden’s office confronting Thomas directly and disclosing Hill’s name to him. Hill, who hadn’t asked for any of this, demurred. Biden’s aide concluded that Hill had merely wanted to “get it off her chest.” The public, meanwhile, heard nothing about it.
Talk of Hill’s allegations spread on the committee, however, and as it reached other Democratic senators, they worried they would be accused of a coverup. Democrats then pressed Biden to take action, which he did, asking the F.B.I. to get statements from Hill and Thomas. The statement from Thomas was a surprise. Biden’s office expected him to say that there had been a misunderstanding between the two. Instead, Thomas categorically denied Hill’s accusations, leaving Biden in the uncomfortable position of having to take sides. Clearly, either Thomas or Hill was lying.
Meanwhile, Hill sent a statement describing Thomas’s sexual harassment of her to Biden’s staff. On September 27, 1991, the Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on Thomas’s confirmation, sending it to the rest of the Senate for final approval. Unexpectedly, the committee split evenly, showing more opposition to Thomas than expected. The public still knew nothing. But when Biden himself voted against Thomas in committee, he made a cryptic public statement warning against the idea that Thomas’s character should be an issue. “I believe there are certain things that are not at issue at all,” Biden said, “and that is his character. This is about what he believes,” Biden stressed. Further, Biden admonished, “I know my colleagues will refrain, and I urge everyone else to refrain from personalizing this battle.”
Biden said in a later interview that he believed Hill from the start, but Thomas and his wife have said that Biden called them after reading the F.B.I. reports and assured them that there was “no merit” to Hill’s accusations. Further, Senator John Danforth, a Republican from Missouri who was Thomas’s primary sponsor, later said that Biden promised Thomas and his wife that, if Hill’s allegations leaked, he would be Thomas’s “most adamant and vigorous defender.”
Word of Hill’s accusation leaked, in part, because Biden’s public defense of Thomas’s character sparked the curiosity of reporters. Once Hill’s allegations exploded in public, pressure mounted for Biden to reopen Thomas’s confirmation hearing in order to consider the new information. Biden, at first, opposed this. Thomas’s sponsors demanded a swift vote and feared that the situation was getting out of hand. The Democratic leadership in the Senate reluctantly agreed to reopen the hearing after a delegation of angry congresswomen barged into a Senate luncheon and demanded it—even though the women were barred at the door. Increasing the pressure, some Democratic senators who had voted for Thomas warned that they would switch their votes against him if there wasn’t a second round of hearings. The Democratic leadership finally conceded, but Biden was warned that it could take weeks to thoroughly investigate the charges. At the same time, he agreed to the Republican demand to move quickly, providing little time to get all of the facts.
Among the most consequential concessions Biden made to Thomas’s team was his agreement that the committee would only examine Thomas’s behavior in the workplace rather than outside of it. As “Strange Justice” describes, there were numerous witnesses over the course of Thomas’s life who corroborated Hill’s account that Thomas liked to watch and describe pornographic films—something Thomas categorically denied. Because of Biden, this corroborating testimony was outside the scope of the hearing.
Biden succeeded on one key point. He insisted that if there were other women who could corroborate Hill’s sexual-harassment accusations or who had had similar experiences, they should be allowed to testify, over Republicans’ objections. And there were three women who wanted to testify, which might very well have changed the outcome of the final vote. But the Republicans convinced Biden that one of the women, Angela Wright, who, like Hill, worked for Thomas at the E.E.O.C., would not hold up as a witness. Wright watched the hearings on television from her lawyers’ office, waiting to be called. Wright had a corroborator, Rose Jourdain, who also was eager to testify, but she, too, never got the chance. They and a third woman, Sukari Hardnett, instead were allowed to submit only depositions or written statements, which went into the public record so late that few senators ever saw them—all of which was Biden’s call.
Hill, meanwhile, testified with quiet precision and dignity as she recounted how, as her supervisor, Thomas had talked in the office “about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts, involved in various sex acts.” Thomas furiously denied her allegations, casting himself as a victim of racism despite the fact that Hill, too, is black, calling the hearing “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”
As Biden chaired the committee, Republican members relentlessly smeared Hill. Arlen Specter, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, accused Hill of “flat-out perjury.” Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah, accused her of basing her allegations on scenes from the movie “The Exorcist.” In a final step, Biden gave Thomas the choice of testifying first, last, or both. Thomas’s team chose the third option, sandwiching Hill’s quiet, dignified testimony between Thomas’s vehement denials. Biden brought down the gavel closing the hearings at 2:03 A.M. on Monday, October 14, 1991. Thomas was confirmed the following day, at 6:03 P.M., in a 52–48 vote, the slimmest margin in more than a century.
Thomas joined the Court, but the fight over sexual harassment is rawer than ever. Understandably, Biden will be questioned about his conduct as he runs for President this year. If he’s smart, he will come up with better answers. But as that plays out, the Republicans who eviscerated Hill and confirmed Thomas, several of whom still serve in the Senate, as well as those who confirmed Kavanaugh under similar circumstances, have even more to answer for.