It’s funny how an image all but ancient now—a whole 16 years ago, after all—still plays out in a flashback fresh as spring. Our City Weekly demographic czars tell me that about 40 percent of our readers are over the age of 40, so I suspect that unless you were hibernating for several weeks in 1991 (which would have made you a thoughtful age 24), you might remember Hill, too.
Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor, sat calmly for days behind that big imposing desk at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas. She had worked for Thomas years earlier, at the U.S. Department of Education. Shortly after George Bush (the first one) nominated the staunchly conservative Thomas to the court, Hill stepped up and leveled public accusations of sexual harassment against her former boss.
Still smarting from an earlier confirmation debacle over the eccentric and dangerous jurist Robert Bork for the same vacancy, right-wing court watchers accused liberals of digging up Hill expressly to sabotage Thomas.
But Hill remained entirely composed. You old-timers out there might recall the water-cooler banter that grew out of the Hill and Thomas testimony. Leading the pro-Thomas “He’s been framed” pack was our own Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, whose skinny little lips pursed most rigidly as he uttered the words “Long Dong Silver” over and over in reference to a porn film star that Hill said Thomas enjoyed discussing in her presence. She said that Thomas especially liked comparing his own private anatomy to that of Long Dong, an ’80s porn actor from Jamaica with, yes, silver hair. Hatch and other senators held us in comic captivity as they wallowed around for hours referencing a certain story Thomas allegedly liked to tell—involving a pubic hair on top of a Coke can. A regular side-splitter he was, that Clarence Thomas.
If you’re among the 60 percent of our readers too young to have experienced all this, it’s OK. Just picture Hatch, whose well-worn persona is now familiar to nearly three generations. Imagine his face pinched beneath his expertly applied foundation makeup, apologizing to America for having to even address such a disgusting topic, then sputtering out the words “Long Dong” and “pubic hair.”
It would have been all over YouTube.
The memories flow like wine again because Thomas’ publisher has just released the justice’s much-promoted memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, which traces his formative years under racial oppression in the deep South, his confessional struggles as an alcoholic in the ’80s (hmm … might inappropriate office behavior against Hill be partly explained by the years he spent as a drunk?) and takes us right up through those turbulent hearings which ended, for him anyway, successfully.
I’ve read only brief excerpts of Thomas’ book on the Internet and saw him speak his mind last week on 60 Minutes. The man who has scarcely uttered a word as a Supreme Court justice for 16 years is suddenly everywhere, and all at once. (A lawyer friend tells me she misses the good old days, when judges observed a certain decorum and didn’t pimp books, ride the lecture circuit or cozy up to a vice president like Dick Cheney on duck-hunting trips, as Antonin Scalia did.)
Thomas remains deeply bitter, apparently, having grabbed perhaps his one-and-only chance to trot out the whole mess again. He’s still calling his scramble for Senate confirmation a “high-tech lynching” by mostly white liberals intent on resurrecting the stereotype of the oversexed black man. Thomas titled Chapter 9 of his book “Invitation to a Lynching,” which might lead more than a few ancestors of blacks who literally were lynched in this country to offer a real definition of that word—and suggest Thomas not throw it around loosely like some literary show-and-tell.
Hill was interviewed Oct. 2 on Good Morning America, well after Thomas had already done his initial publicity. Just as in 1991, Hill remained composed, her voice even. She is a law professor at Brandeis University. She has never changed her testimony.
GMA’s Robin Roberts asked Hill why she had waited so many years after working for Thomas to come forward with the damning testimony at his hearings. Reporters asked her that question back then, too. She answered Roberts the same way she responded 16 years ago. “It is amazing how much we tolerate in the workplace,” Hill said, adding that finances, family challenges and other issues often keep a person at an unpleasant job much longer than desired.
So many women, especially of her generation and before, know the reality of that comment. She has stayed consistent, and she continues to answer her critics with great class. Besides, even to this day, I have to ask: Why would a smart and well-educated woman with at least as much to lose professionally and personally as Clarence Thomas choose to sit before a pack of creepy, mostly white guys and the rest of the nation, talking—under oath—about an errant pubic hair?
I still believe Anita Hill.