Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out

Part VII: 'Traitorous' Adversaries: Anita Hill and the Senate Democrats


Sept. 30, 2007—

After five days of testimony, the hearings concluded and Thomas and his wife escaped for the weekend for Cape May, N.J. The day after he returned, White House lawyer Lee Liberman called Thomas to tell him the FBI was sending two agents to talk to him. She said she could not tell him what it was about.

Thomas wrote that he paced around the house "like a caged animal," not knowing what to expect but fearing the worst. The FBI agents arrived later that morning.

"Do you know a woman named Anita Hill?" one asked.

"Yes, of course," Thomas responded.

"Did you ever make sexual advances to her or discuss pornography with her?"

"Absolutely not," Thomas wrote.

Thomas wrote that he was "astonished" and "couldn't believe what I was hearing."

The agents, he wrote, then read aloud "vague, unsupported allegations of some unspecified sexual misconduct by me." They asked whether Hill had contacted him after leaving EEOC, and Thomas said she had in fact called him regularly. They asked if he wanted to date her.

"My goodness, no," Thomas wrote of his response, adding the question would have been "laughable if the situation hadn't been so deadly serious."

The agents told Thomas the allegations were being investigated across the country, even as they spoke. They then departed, "leaving me shaken and demoralized," Thomas wrote, and he rushed to call Virginia in her office.

She asked whether there was "anything more she needed to know about my relationship with Anita Hill," Thomas wrote. "'Nothing,' I said."

Thomas explained that he'd hired her at his friend Gil Hardy's urging and had done his best to help her, and how she'd "stormed out of my office… complaining I preferred light-complexioned women" when he promoted Allyson Duncan, now a federal appeals court judge, to be his chief of staff instead of Hill.

"I never had any doubt, because I know all the people in his life. I know what he's been like," Virginia says. "It was surprising and it was unusual, but so had been a number of charges up to that point. So it just felt like the next one coming, OK, now what do we do with this?"

Thomas wrote that he could not comprehend why Hill would make the allegations. He wrote that she was "touchy and apt to overreact," and that if "I or anyone else had done the slightest thing to offend her, she would have complained loudly and instantly." He also wrote that he had found her political views — she said she "detested" Reagan — "stereotypically left of center and uninformed."

Thomas wrote that he was "one of the least likely candidates imaginable for such a charge," and that he had insisted on a professional and respectful workplace. "My reputation was spotless."

The FBI finished its confidential report and distributed it to the Senators on the Judiciary Committee, which was set to vote that Friday, Sept. 27. Thomas met privately with Sen. Arlen Specter, the maverick Pennsylvania Republican, who told him Hill's statement to the FBI left him with the impression that Hill "thought I was interested in her romantically, since I wasn't dating anybody at the time."

But Hill had not told the FBI any specific details of Thomas's alleged harassment when agents interviewed her. Instead, as other books on the hearings detail, Hill would later work with her new advisers and a Senate staffer, James Brudney, to draw up a detailed statement that would include allegations of how Thomas graphically discussed sex and sex scenes, pornography and penises. But none of it was in the FBI's report, because Hill did not provide those details when the agents interviewed her.

Thomas says he knew none of that. He wrote that by then, he felt like a character out of Franz Kafka's The Trial: "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K," Kafka's novel begins, "for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning."

"Not only had I done nothing wrong, but I didn't even know what I was supposed to have done," Thomas wrote.

The day of the committee's vote, Thomas spoke by phone with Biden, who told him he would vote against his nomination. Thomas wrote that Biden said he'd regretted his vote to confirm Antonin Scalia, and that he worried Thomas would prove to be as conservative.

Biden, by that point, also had seen Hill's detailed statement, which Thomas did not know. But he offered Thomas his assurances: "Judge, I know you don't believe me, but if any of these… matters come up, I will be your biggest defender."

"He was right about one thing: I didn't believe him," Thomas wrote. "Neither did Virginia. As he reassured me of his goodwill, she grabbed a spoon from the silverware drawer, opened her mouth wide, stuck out her tongue as far she could, and pretended to gag herself."

Later that day, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-7 along party lines to recommend Thomas's nomination to the full Senate, with one Democrat, Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, joining the Republicans. Biden, who had seen Hill's statement, proclaimed before voting against Thomas: "For this senator, there is no question with respect to the nominee's character, competence, credentials, or credibility… This is about what he believes, not about who he is."

With the full Senate vote scheduled for a week and a half away, Thomas wrote that "many people supposed the worst was over." Justice Souter sent a handwritten note of congratulations. Chief Justice William Rehnquist's assistant called to offer assistance in setting up his chambers. The White House believed it had between 70 and 80 votes lined up to support him, Thomas wrote.

But Thomas wrote that he "didn't trust my enemies" and "wouldn't rest easy until the votes were tallied."

Thomas "never feared the results of the FBI's investigations, not merely because I was innocent but also because I trusted the agents to behave professionally," he wrote. "What I feared was that if Anita's charges became public, the media would jump to its usual conclusion that I was the villain — and that was what happened."

The next week — three days before the Senate was to vote on Thomas's nomination — the contents of Hill's confidential sworn statement were leaked to National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg and Newsday's Timothy Phelps. Thomas wrote that the Hill portrayed in the media "bore little resemblance to the woman who had worked for me."

"Somewhere along the line, she had been transformed into a conservative, devoutly religious Reagan-administration employee. In fact she was a left-winger who'd never expressed any religious sentiments whatsoever during the time I'd known her, and the only reason why she'd held a job in the Reagan administration was because I'd given it to her," Thomas wrote. "But the truth was no longer relevant: keeping me off the Supreme Court was all that mattered."

Thomas says he had told Virginia that some of his opponents "would try to kill me," and he had grasped how. It dawned on him that he was being treated no differently that those Southern blacks in his grandfather's time.

"We knew what their weapon of choice was to be: the age-old blunt instrument of accusing a black man of sexual misconduct," Thomas wrote. "And it did not matter that a black woman was being used to make the accusations."

Hill's allegations — that Thomas pressured her to date him and graphically discussed sex and pornography — seem less explosive today. But they would reshape the debate on sexual harassment and usher in the "year of the woman" in politics. Time Magazine, reflecting how much of the media would respond, labeled Hill a modern-day Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks.

But Thomas — who vehemently denies the allegations — always believed it was about race. To destroy his nomination, Thomas believes his opponents fell back on the vilest stereotypes of a black man as sexual predator, just as Southerners had done a generation before when blacks stepped out of line — and as African-American novelists had recounted so powerfully in literature.

For Thomas, the hearings represented a melding of two literary classics he'd read so often as a young man struggling to remain connected to his old black world while navigating a new white one: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a novel about an unnamed character who realizes he will forever be defined, by whites and blacks, as a collection of stereotypes — i.e., invisible and unseen as he really is. The second is Richard Wright's harrowing masterpiece Native Son, the story of a doomed and tragic young black man, Bigger Thomas, who is falsely accused of raping and murdering a white girl.

Thomas had read, and reread, both throughout his formative years as a young man. In a 1988 interview with Reason magazine, he said Wright had been the most influential writer in his life, and that the author's Native Son and Black Boy "captures a lot of the feelings that I had inside that you learn how to repress."

In Native Son, Wright tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an impoverished youth who takes a job as a driver for a wealthy liberal family on Chicago's South Side. When the free-spirited daughter passes out one night after drinking too much, Bigger — trying to help — accidentally suffocates her with a pillow. He panics and stuffs her body into the furnace — effectively destroying the proof that he was innocent of the charges that will mean a death sentence: rape and murder.

He flees, becomes the target of a 5,000-person manhunt and, while trying to evade his accusers, sees a newspaper headline: "Authorities Hint Sex Crime."

"Those words excluded him utterly from the world. To hint that he had committed a sex crime was to pronounce a death sentence," Wright wrote. "It meant a wiping out of his life even before he was captured; it meant death before death came, for the white men who read those words would at once kill him in their hearts."

Thomas sees every parallel. The white liberals who brought Hill forward and encouraged Hill to go public, the white Senators who allowed it to happen, the white media who fueled the fire — all of it, he believes, was an effort to make Clarence Thomas into Bigger Thomas.

"It was as though these people had figured out a way to try to torment us, to connect it back to the worst stereotypes that they could find and to play this game, and it was a just an awful game that the South was accused of," Thomas says.

Much like Bigger Thomas in Native Son, Thomas wrote that he was "half crazed with fear" and felt "all my reserves were used up" when Hill's allegations were first made public. He wrote of lying across the bed, "curled up in a fetal position, tired beyond imagining."

"What would you do after over 100 days of being pounded and you're not sleeping you're exhausted. What would you do? And then all of a sudden something comes out of the blue, and this person that they've described as acting in a way that you've never seen — totally out of character — this combative, in-you-face person, is suddenly this demure person," Thomas says.

Virginia says the experience was "so surreal that it felt like we were in a nightmare," and they got through those days with prayers and faith. She says Thomas was "struggling emotionally and intellectually."

"It's just pure survival, hour by hour," Virginia says. "It truly was hour by hour, because Clarence was seemingly shrinking hour by hour into less of a man."

But he never considered quitting, even though he wrote that some top White House advisers, including Marlin Fitzwater and John Sununu, had advised Bush "to pull the plug." Bush refused.

"I mean, just go on and kill me and get it over with," Thomas says. "That was never an option."

Thomas says was fighting not for a Supreme Court seat — which he had never sought or particularly wanted — but for his very life, his name and the lives of those who'd sacrificed and gone before him, his grandparents, the poor blacks in Pinpoint, the ladies at the NAACP meeting who'd put all their dreams on him.

"It wasn't even about the Supreme Court, because I wasn't really interested in that. What you were fighting for was your life — for everything that went before," Thomas says. "You were fighting for the grandparents who sacrificed… In the end, that was what they were trying to destroy, and you knew they were trying to destroy it. This wasn't anything about any behavior. I mean, come on, give me a break. I knew exactly what it was."

When it became clear the Committee was going to reopen the hearings, Silberman told Thomas he needed a lawyer and had the top attorneys in Washington ready to sign on. But Thomas rejected the advice. He did not trust them. He turned to his old friend Larry Thompson, one person he knew he could trust.

"There were some well-intentioned people who wanted to talk strategy and all. I wasn't interested in that. This was not a case, it was not a court of law," Thomas says. "I saw what was going on in the context of, say, Native Son or Ralph Ellison, and I understood what was going on.

"I saw it for what it was, and I still see it for exactly what it was," Thomas says. "It was an effort to keep me in my place."

The night before the hearing, Thomas wrote of trying to write his statement, "unable to summon the energy to do anything." Virginia swept away all the notes and suggestions friends had given them and handed him a legal pad. Thomas wrote that he prayed for wisdom and courage, and "all at once the words began to pour out of me."

He sat at his kitchen table and wrote by hand, and Virginia typed it upstairs on their computer. They finished around 5 a.m., and went to bed for an hour's sleep. Thomas said he spent that hour "tossing, turning and thinking, and the more I thought, the angrier I got." He thought of laboring in the South Georgia heat, because, as his grandfather said, it was "our lot to work from sun to sun."

"I'd lived by the rules of a society that had treated blacks shabbily and held them back at every turn. I'd plugged away, deferred gratification, eschewed leisure," he wrote. "Now in one climactic swipe of calumny, America's elites were arrogantly wreaking havoc on everything my grandparents had worked for and all I'd accomplished in 43 years of struggle"

"My friends in Savannah had told me to let go of my foolish dreams. 'The man ain't goin' let you do nothin',' they had said over and over. 'Why you even tryin'?" Now I knew who 'the man' was," Thomas wrote. "He'd come at last to kill me, and I had looked upon his hateful, leering face as he slipped his noose of lies around my neck."

Thomas wrote that he'd asked God to purge his heart of anger, but "it had slipped its leash" and he owed it to his family "not to self destruct but to confront them with the truth."

By the time he arrives at the Capitol, Thomas had become an explosively angry black man. His testimony soon would make that abundantly clear.

"When I stood next to the President in Kennebunkport being nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States, that was a high honor, but as I sit here before you 103 days later, that honor has been crushed. From the very beginning, charges were leveled against me from the shadows, charges of drug abuse, anti-Semitism, wife beating, drug use by family members, that I was a quota appointment, confirmation conversion and much, much more," he testified. "And now, this."

"Mr. Chairman, I am a victim of this process. My name has been harmed. My integrity has been harmed. My character has been harmed. My family has been harmed. My friends have been harmed. There is nothing this committee, this body, or this country can do to give my good name back. Nothing," he continued. "I will not provide the rope for my own lynching or for further humiliation."

When Thomas stopped, he wrote that the "world seemed to go blank." He left the hearing room and went home. Virginia went upstairs and watched Hill testify, but Thomas did not.

She came down later and told Thomas about Hill's allegations, and she says she told him "people will probably respond to her."

"I was shocked that she looked credible. I was shocked because I knew the truth of Clarence Thomas and what he was like, and I was shocked that she had it within her to look credible with these charges," Virginia says. "And that's a problem."

Later that afternoon, Thomas is summoned back to the committee. He hadn't seen Hill's testimony, and he wrote that he didn't want to hear from anyone about it. He asked Danforth to make everyone leave, and he wrote that he "lay back on the couch, surrounded by the darkness of early evening, drifting in the liminal space between sleep and waking."

Danforth was making notes on a legal pad, and he read them aloud to Thomas. At that point, Thomas wrote, his thoughts crystallized into a single phrase: "This is a high-tech lynching."

Thomas wrote that he must have been thinking of To Kill a Mockingbird, when small-town lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. And Thomas quotes from Finch's closing argument in Tom Robinson's trial, how the witnesses against him had the "cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption — the evil assumption — that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women."

"I knew exactly what Atticus Finch was talking about," Thomas wrote. "I had lived my whole life knowing Tom's fate might be mine."

"The mob I now faced carried no ropes or guns," Thomas wrote. "Its weapons were smooth-tongued lies spoken into microphones and printed on the front pages of America's newspapers. It no longer sought to break the bodies of its victims. Instead it devastated their reputations and drained away their hope.

"But it was a mob all the same, and its purpose — to keep the black man in his place — was unchanged." Thomas wrote. "Strip away the fancy talk and you were left with the same old story: You can't trust black men around women. This one may be a big-city judge with a law degree from Yale, but when you get right down to it, he's just like the rest of them. They all do that sort of thing whenever they get the chance, and no woman would ever lie about it."

As he describes his emotions, his words of rage literally leap of the page. When he enters the hearing room and takes his seat, he levels his own assault.

"This is a circus. It is a national disgrace," his voice in tightly focused anger. "And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree."

He wrote that his words "seemed to hang in the air of the Caucus Room like the smoke from a bomb that had just exploded." Alabama Senator Howell Heflin, whose uncle, Thomas notes, "once graced the Senate as an apologist for the Ku Klux Klan," began the questioning and seemed surprised Thomas when said he had not watched Hill's testimony.

Heflin: "Judge if you are on the bench and you approach a case where you appear to have a closed mind and that you are only right, doesn't it raise issues of judicial temperament?"

Thomas: "Senator. Senator, there is a big difference between approaching a case objectively and watching yourself being lynched. There is no comparison whatsoever."

Thomas wrote that he believes Heflin was reverting back to the roles blacks and whites had long played on the Old South.

"Senator Heflin's friends in the media liked to describe his manner as 'courtly,' but now it made me think of a slave owner sitting on the porch of a plantation house," Thomas wrote.

Thomas answered questions for 90 minutes, and with every question — about sex, pornography, his private parts — he wrote that he "felt dirtier and dirtier." He does not discuss that in the book, writing, "I have no intention of repeating the dirty details here." He wrote he "had talked about X-rated movies when I was at Yale — but so had many other young people in seventies."

"Those were the days when Deep Throat was one of the most-talked about movies in America," Thomas wrote. "Of course, it had been immature of me even to mention such films, but I was immature like many other students."

But Thomas saw his opponents make the case that because he had watched pornography, must also be a harasser. And it seems to have been more galling that, he wrote, he knew of "at least one senator sitting in judgment of me against whom accusations of sexual improprieties had been leveled that made Anita's charges look mild."

"It was the most inhumane thing that has happened to me. Now what I blame myself for is that I should have known they would do that. I had read Richard Wright. I had read Outsider, Black Boy, Native Son," Thomas says. "I should have known that the… individual counts very little when an ideology is put in place like that."

"In other words, I'm not their puppet. It's obvious. That's the whole point Ralph Ellison tries to make with Invisible Man," Thomas says. "And that's something I think maybe my grandfather feared."

Four days later, the Senate voted to confirm Thomas to the Supreme Court, by the narrowest margin in history, 52-48. Thomas was home when the Senate voted, and Virginia asked if he wanted to listen to the roll call. "Absolutely not," he responded. "I don't care what they do."

He decided to take a long hot bath to relax, and he was in the tub when Virginia's assistant called. Virginia hung up the phone, went into the bathroom and told Thomas he had been confirmed.

"'Whoop-dee-damn-doo,' I said, sliding deeper into the comforting water," Thomas wrote of the conversation. "Mere confirmation, even to the Supreme Court, seemed pitifully small compensation for what had been done to me."

To continue on to Part VIII: Rebuilding a Life, please click here.