It is still unclear exactly how, when and under what conditions Christine Blasey Ford will testify next week on Capitol Hill. Ford has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault when they were in high school.
But how all this is handled will have consequences, as it did 27 years ago when the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings dealing with sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Late in the summer of 1991, Democratic committee staffers began to hear rumors about Thomas sexually harassing one or more women who had worked with him. Here’s a look back at how it all went down:
Sept. 6: Anita Hill, after twice refusing to discuss the matter with staffers, says she wants to think about it. Over that weekend she mulls her options, torn between what she saw as her duty to provide information to the committee, and her desire not to be publicly identified.
Sept. 10: The previously scheduled Thomas confirmation hearings begin. They last 10 days and focus entirely on Thomas’ legal views, as expressed in his speeches and writings, including the decisions he wrote in his brief 18 months as a federal appeals court judge.
Sept. 20: The hearings end.
Away from the cameras, Democratic senators begin to worry about ignoring Hill’s charges. A small group led by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts urge committee Chairman Joseph Biden to take action. Biden, following standard practice, asks the Bush White House to authorize a further FBI investigation, this time focused on Hill’s charges.
Sept. 23: FBI agents interview Hill in Oklahoma. Hill also sends an affidavit to the committee.
Sept 25: FBI agents interview Thomas at his home in Virginia.
Sept. 27: The Judiciary Committee meets to vote on the nomination. While the Hill charges are still not public, Biden has kept the Republicans in the loop. And he makes this rather peculiar statement about Thomas, and his colleagues:
“I believe there are certain things that are not at issue at all. … And that is his character. … This is about what he believes.” Speaking in warning tones, Biden added, “I know my colleagues, and I urge everyone else to refrain from personalizing this battle… .”
Up to that time, there had been no public suggestion that Thomas in any way lacked good character. That made this reporter, sitting in the press box, curious.
Oct. 6: NPR airs this reporter’s story, laying out Hill’s charges, including an interview with her — and information from a corroborating witness.
Oct. 7: Hill holds a press conference and says she is willing to testify.
Oct. 8: This is the day the final vote on the Thomas nomination was previously scheduled. But Republicans realize they do not have 51 certain votes for confirmation. Republican leader Bob Dole and the Democratic leader George Mitchell huddle. With the Democrats in control of the Senate, Democrats have the upper hand, but they agree to a second round of hearings to begin just three days later.
Oct. 11: Biden opens the hearings. “Professor Hill has made two requests to this committee,” he says. First, that the committee investigate the charges, and second that the charges remain confidential. “I believe we have honored both her requests,” he says, but “the landscape has changed, and we are thus here today, free from the restrictions, which had previously limited our work.”
All the witnesses who would appear before the committee were subpoenaed and sworn. That included four corroborating witnesses who testified about their contemporaneous conversations with Hill during the time she said she was harassed.
But the main event was Hill versus Thomas: sex and lies, set to the tune of American racial stereotypes.
Two African American Yale law school graduates from poor rural backgrounds— she with a quiet dignity, reciting the indignities she testified were visited upon her. “He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts, involved in various sex acts,” she said. “On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess. ”
And he, denying the charges in a fury, called the hearing “a national disgrace … a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”
Republicans went after Hill with vengeance. Sen. Arlen Specter accused Hill of “flat-out perjury” at one point. At another, he suggested her testimony was the “product of fantasy.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is still on the committee, suggested that she got the idea for some of her charges from the movie, The Exorcist.
Democrats were sometimes flatfooted in their attempts to show that Hill had no motive to lie. “Are you a scorned woman. … Are you a zealoting civil rights believer. … Do you have a martyr complex?” asked Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama.
Back then, Republicans like Hatch supported the FBI returning to its investigation and praised the committee’s bipartisan leadership. “They immediately ordered this FBI investigation, which was the very right thing to do,” Hatch said, noting that Biden and the committee’s ranking Republican Strom Thurmond “did what every other chairman and ranking member have done in the past.”
But having the FBI involved also frightened off some witnesses who were afraid that Thomas’ supporters on the committee would use raw data from the files to harm their reputations.
Oct. 14 at 2:03 a.m.: The hearing ends.
Oct. 15 at 6:03 p.m.: Thomas is confirmed by a 2-vote margin, the narrowest in more than a century.
But women voters rebelled, ushering in what came to be known as “The Year of The Woman” in 1992. Elected were four new female — and Democratic — members of the Senate, including Dianne Feinstein of California, now the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Republicans, and privately some Democrats, now blame the California Democrat for keeping Ford’s charges a secret since July. Feinstein says she was honoring Ford’s decision to remain confidential.