Oct. 24, 2011— -- Congress had never seen anything like it: an explosive mix of sex, race and politics in the Senate Caucus Room, broadcast live to tens of millions of Americans.
"It is difficult to remember a more grotesquely riveting day before a U.S. Senate committee," Ted Koppel said on ABC's "Nightline" after Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas presented their initial "she said, he said" testimony.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of Thomas' first full day on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Two decades later, the legacy of his combative confirmation hearing -- in which Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment and Thomas complained it was a "legal lynching" -- still echoes across politics, the workplace and American culture.
Former Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who played a leading role in the hearing as a Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee (in 2009, he became a Democrat), said he is amazed at how many people approach him about what happened during those contentious days in October 1991.
"It made a hell of an impact on a lot of people," Specter said.
"It was worldwide. People have said to me they were in Timbuktu, and they were watching," he said. "Last year, the night before the primary in Pennsylvania, I was heading into a rally in Pittsburgh and a woman walked up to me, and in front of all the cameras there, she said, 'I'll never forgive you for what you did to Anita Hill.'"
The stakes were high. President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall, the court's first black justice and a staunch liberal. Thomas was an ardent conservative, and Democrats fretted that he would shift the court to the right.
But his confirmation hearing actually had been completed when news reports leaked the bombshell allegations; that one of Thomas' co-workers had accused him of sexual harassment during interviews with the FBI. The Judiciary Committee agreed to take more testimony.
Facing a bank of 14 senators, all of them men, Hill alleged a series of vulgar advances by Thomas, including, she said, his graphic discussions of pornography, when she worked for him at two government agencies a decade earlier. "On several occasions Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess," she said.
Thomas was equally adamant in denying the accusations. "This is a circus, it's a national disgrace," he bristled. "And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."
With no resolution of their divergent accounts, the Senate voted largely along party lines, 52-48, to confirm Thomas, the narrowest confirmation vote in a century.
The repercussions were immediate. One enduring legacy: the emergence of women in politics. In 1991, all but two of the Senate's 100 members were men, and there were only 30 women in the House. But the first national election after the hearings turned 1992 into the "Year of the Woman." Upset by the treatment of Hill, a record number of women ran for public office; four women were elected to the Senate, and 19 women were elected to the House.
Today, there are 17 women senators,77 women members of the House, and a woman is the national chairman of the Democratic Party.
"The Thomas hearing helped to transform the role of women in politics and government. It empowered women," said Steven Wermiel, a fellow in law and government at American University's law school who covered the Thomas nomination as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
The proceedings also brought about a new understanding of sexual harassment, Wermiel said. New laws were enacted, and women were emboldened to step forward about mistreatment in the workplace. The number of sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission soared following the hearings, from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996, and kept increasing until 2001.
"Women no longer put up with sexual harassment in the workplace, or anywhere else," Specter said.
But wouldn't the election of more women, and the increased reporting of sexual harassment, have happened anyway?
"Perhaps they would have, but it would have taken a lot longer," Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY'S List, an organization dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women, wrote in an e-mail. "That dais of men, and the way they treated Anita Hill ... blew open (the) possibilities for women."
There is less agreement about what role the nomination battle has played in the decline of civility in politics and the surge of partisanship in judicial confirmations. The ugliness actually began four years before the Thomas fight, when Democrats defeated President Ronald Reagan's nomination of conservative Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
"The 1987 hearings on Judge Bork, without question, loom far larger in terms of importance," said David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written about the Supreme Court for 20 years.
"It was the Bork hearings which made virtually everything fair game and sort of initiated an almost completely partisan approach to confirmations," he said. "It has essentially been a downhill slope since then."
But Tom Goldstein, a lecturer at the Harvard and Stanford law schools and the founder of SCOTUSblog.com, said he considers the Thomas hearing the "the tipping point that threw confirmation politics into disarray."
"The Bork nomination opened the floodgates and the Thomas nomination kept the fighting going," he said.
"The process is completely broken with no remote prayer of being repaired. If a party can block a nominee of the other party, it will. ... They are not concerned with the merits of the nominee, by and large."
The many vacancies in federal district and appellate courts, and the delays in filling many of them, are testament to this legacy, he said. "More seats are empty, and so it takes cases longer to get decided, and when they are decided the reasoning is less sound, because the judges are busier," he said. "And the public loses confidence in the decisions, thinking these are just political decisions."
There is much speculation about what effect, if any, the bruising confirmation fight has had on Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill 20 years later.
Specter, for one, thinks "it has left very deep scars on both of them."
"I had a talk with Justice Thomas about a decade after the hearings, a long talk, about two hours, and I asked him whether he would prefer not to be on the court if he could have avoided those hearings, and he thought awhile and ducked the question by saying, 'You know, senator, my colleagues are wonderful people.' I think he has been shellshocked," Specter said.
Many reviewers of Thomas' 2007 autobiography, "My Grandfather's Son," which dealt extensively with his 1991 confirmation hearing, were struck by the tone of his writing. "It appears that Thomas is either too hurt or too angry for subtlety," a reviewer wrote in "Slate."
Hill, now a professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., told ABC's Robin Roberts earlier this month, "Am I still angry? I'm sure there's some anger in me. But I have really made a concerted effort in all these 20 years to get understanding and wisdom and learn and grow from that experience."
She added, "I have been approached by so many people who said my testimony at the hearing allowed them to find their own voice, and that is the greatest legacy I could ever hope for."