With the spring, 1991 resignation of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, then-President George H. W. Bush was presented with a unique challenge. Marshall had been a legendary liberal who, as the first African American Justice, brought his decades-long activism to Court decisions. But the 1990s lay nestled in a resurgence of political conservatism, and Bush, recognizing the necessity of appointing another African American to the Court, struggled to find a qualified black jurist whose political leanings matched his own. His eventual choice would be Judge Clarence Thomas, who sat on the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. To Bush, Thomas seemed the ideal nominee: born into Southern poverty in 1948, he struggled to put himself through the College of Holy Cross, then through Yale Law School, from which he graduated in 1974. The prejudice he faced, however, from law firms convinced that his Yale degree had been merely the result of affirmative action, instilled in him a growing belief that individual action, rather than governmental programs, was the key to overcoming racial and economic adversity. These libertarian beliefs, combined with a strong grounding in Catholicism, resulted in a political conservatism which mirrored Bush’s own beliefs in many ways.
The appointment was controversial, with many civil rights and feminist organizations vehemently opposing Thomas’ stated opposition to affirmative action, his disagreement with the NAACP on labor issues and a perceived stance against abortion rights. The confirmation hearings, which began on September 19, were often hostile, with Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee pummeling the appointee with thinly-disguised attacks on his qualifications for the job, their ire fueled by the candidate’s own tight-lipped reluctance to reveal his own political opinions. Ultimately, the Committee passed Thomas’ appointment on to the full Senate with a seven-to-seven split vote, thus ensuring an equally fractious Senate hearing.
But contentiousness turned into full-blown attack when an FBI interview with Anita Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, was leaked to the press. The interview focused on Hill’s accusations that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she assisted him at the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, making inappropriate sexual remarks, unwanted requests for dates and references to such esoterica as “women having sex with animals” and the adult film star Long Dong Silver. Perhaps the most popularly quoted piece of testimony was Hill’s assertion that Thomas had found a can of soda on his desk and quipped, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” The resulting frenzy captured national headlines for weeks, especially after Thomas’ heated denials of Hill’s accusations. A final Senate vote on the appointment was postponed while the Judiciary Committee re-opened its hearings to interview both Hill and Thomas. (Four other women who supported Hill’s claims were not called to testify, allegedly because of a deal struck by Republican senators and the head of the Judiciary Committee, Democrat Joe Biden.) On Friday, October 11, as the second round of hearings began, millions of avid television viewers saw Thomas, then Hill, present their stories. Thomas read from a prepared statement during which he denied Hill’s charges once more, then refused to “be further humiliated in order to be confirmed.” He continued: “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 me my good name back. Nothing.”
Following this, Hill (who had just been subjected to a lie detector test which supported her assertions) was questioned first by Chairman Biden, then the other members of the Committee. As the interrogation grew more specific and more heated, Hill herself remained the picture of composure, writing later that “[T]hough I felt each one of the senators’ attempts to humiliate me, I vowed not to so much as twitch…I ignored my dry throat. I sat throughout the ‘conversations’ with the Republicans and Democrats with my hands in front of me and only occasionally would I even lean forward.”
The grilling of Thomas and Hill continued for two more days. Hill would later comment that the sessions seemed distinctly pro-Thomas, while Thomas likened his experience in front of the Committee to a “high tech lynching.” Neither budged from their very different accounts of the incidents in question; predictably, the senators took sides based on party lines. After hours of debate, the full Senate voted to confirm Thomas’ nomination, by a narrow vote of 52 to 48.
Nearly 25 years later, the case still inspires passionate debate, and is seen by many as the beginning of a new era in the evolution of racial politics and the polarization of liberal and conservative values. It also inspired a new awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, and galvanized the increased involvement of women in politics. And the media frenzy that erupted that fall led to a new age of electronic “tabloid press,” evident in such media-genic events as the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton scandal, the popularity of reality TV and the current coverage of Donald Trump’s presidential bid.