Did We Learn From Anita Hill?

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In the early 1980s, probably the summer of 1982, a teenage girl was at a party in a Maryland suburb near D.C. It was a memorable night, one which she could recall in detail almost forty years later. Two boys pushed her into a bedroom. One pinned her to the bed and groped her, his body writhing on top of hers, clumsily attempting to pull off her clothes and the one-piece bathing suit underneath them. When she tried to scream, he put his hand over her mouth. The boys were laughing. The girl was afraid the boy on top of her might accidentally kill her. His friend watched, then tried to join in, jumping on top of them. All three went tumbling to the ground and the girl fled, locking herself in a bathroom until she heard the boys stumbling away.

The girl — around 15 at the time — did what many girls who find themselves in this situation do: She told no one. In the next few years, she struggled academically and socially, unable to form romantic relationships.

It’s possible she watched on television almost ten years later when Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about being sexually harassed by her former boss, Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee. It’s possible she saw Hill accused of being delusional, or a vengeful woman scorned. “She wanted it” is likely something she heard said of this poised and polished scholarly woman. It’s possible that two years after that, in 1993, she watched as David Brock gained plaudits and wealth for a character-assassinating book claiming to show “the Real Anita Hill,” watched when GOP operatives referred to his mansion as the house that Anita built.” It’s possible she again noticed a decade later, in 2001, when Brock quietly disavowed his entire book and said his writing on Hill was gleaned not from reporting, but from rumors intended to destroy her reputation. He faced exactly zero repercussions. It’s possible she watched Hill, an accomplished legal scholar and lawyer, get reduced forever in history to a woman in the shadow of a man for whom consequences proved to be purely theoretical.

A year later, in 2002, the formerly teenaged girl, now a successful professor herself, married. Early in their relationship, she told her husband she’d been physically abused, but it took ten years of struggling in their marriage before the details came out in couples counseling.

It’s unclear whether she noticed that the boy who watched in that room on the night in question published a book, chronicling his history of alcoholism, and including anecdotes about a friend named “Bart O’Kavanaugh” who partied at the beach with him as a teen. According to her husband, she did remember the last name of the boy who held her down: Kavanaugh. In the 2012 therapy session when she revealed the details of the night that traumatized her as a teen, she told her husband that the boy who attacked her was now a federal judge, and she feared he might one day be nominated to the Supreme Court.

That day came earlier this year. Hesitantly, the woman contacted the Washington Post’s tipline and her congresswoman. Through her congresswoman, she sent a letter describing the incident, and requesting confidentiality, to the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Frightened of the repercussions of going public with her story, she ignored efforts from the Post and others to speak with her. She hired a lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment cases, and took a polygraph test administered by a former FBI agent. The test concluded she was telling the truth.

It’s unlikely that gave her much comfort, if she remembered Anita Hill’s experience. After all, Hill took and passed a polygraph test. The man she accused, Clarence Thomas, refused to, was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, and remains on the court to this day.

Those are the details of the story provided by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser thus far, and some of the historical context surrounding them. There are other cultural realities to consider, of course: the current #MeToo movement, which has some women feeling slightly less afraid to speak up about experiences of abuse, and many powerful figures on the defensive, accusing supporters of the movement of going too far. We are in “the year of the woman,” some say. Will that help Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor accusing Kavanaugh? Consider this: 1992 was also “the year of the woman.” It was a year after Anita Hill testified, the same year as the Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, allowing states to regulate abortion as early as the first trimester, a ruling that reaffirmed central tenets of Roe v. Wade while beginning the gradual process of eroding the rights granted to women in the 1973 landmark decision.

Ford initially agreed to testify before Congress, just as Anita Hill did after statements she gave to FBI agents doing background checks on Thomas were leaked to the press. Women from her high school have circulated a letter of support. Of the 65 high school acquaintances of Kavanaugh’s who signed a letter of support for him last week, only four have stood by their signatures since Ford came forward. (Many of those 65, though, did not respond when POLITICO contacted them.) Mark Judge, the friend who Ford says was with Kavanaugh when he attacked her, has since written that he never saw Kavanaugh behave as Ford described and he would prefer not to testify. The Senate Judiciary Committee has subpoena power to compel him to do so, but it’s unclear whether the committee will pursue that route. Meanwhile, a woman who says she went to school with Ford tweeted that she knew about the incident when it happened, though she has since deleted the tweet and declined to discuss it further.

Hill had support back in 1991 too. She had four women waiting to support her credibility, but they were not allowed to speak — because Joe Biden, a Democrat, made a deal with his Republican colleagues. Biden has of late taken up the cause of affirmative consent and campus sexual assault, and has twice come close to apologizing to Hill — though not for suppressing her supporters, or for his own role in the attacks she received (he claims he wishes he’d done more to tone down his colleagues’ attacks on her). As Hill herself said: “He said, ‘I am sorry if she felt she didn’t get a fair hearing.’ That’s sort of an ‘I’m sorry if you were offended.’”

Biden has pointed out he voted against Thomas’ confirmation, but if he suppressed her witnesses, how much does that single vote really matter?

Biden has long been praised for his ability to “reach across the aisle” and work amicably with his Republican colleagues. Many of today’s top Democrats have the same reputation. Does that mean Ford can expect to be undermined in back-door dealings the way Hill was? The vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation was scheduled for this Thursday, but after three Republican senators said they thought it should be postponed, Sen. Chuck Grassley canceled the vote. A new date has not yet been set.

At first, Ford’s lawyer said on television that Ford would testify before the committee. But after receiving death threats, having her email hacked and identity impersonated online, Ford said an FBI investigation should occur before she is forced to go “on national television to relive this traumatic and harrowing incident.” While Ford and her family had to relocate from their home for safety reasons, Kavanaugh’s wife was handing out cupcakes to the reporters outside their house. (Hill’s experience predated the internet age, but she too received harassing phone calls from strangers.)

Sen. Orrin Hatch has claimed the FBI doesn’t conduct such investigations, even though they did investigate Hill’s statements about Thomas. Hatch should know this: During Thomas’ hearing, he praised Biden and Strom Thurmond for ordering an FBI investigation “which was the very right thing to do, and they did what every other chairman and ranking member have done.” (The Justice Department has said the allegation against Kavanaugh “does not involve any potential federal crime” for the FBI to investigate, and that the FBI’s role during background investigations is specifically to look for natural security risks.) The Utah senator even doubled down in recent days: When Sen. Schumer criticized the White House for not ordering an FBI investigation, Hatch said his complaint “does not hold water” because Senate Democrats had withheld Ford’s letter from Republicans and the FBI for two months. Hatch’s accusation comes off a little hypocritical, however, considering the White House and Republicans have withheld the majority of Kavanaugh’s record, only releasing about 7 percent of it and blocking subpoenas seeking answers to a variety of questions. (For comparison, when Justice Elena Kagan was nominated, the Obama White House released about 99 percent of her record.)

Why do these details about Hatch matter? He sits on the committee that will question Ford — and was on it back in 1991 when they questioned Hill. He was one of her most aggressive interrogators, and accused her of plagiarizing her statements about Thomas from “The Exorcist” and an obscure decision by a federal appeals court in Tulsa, Okla. He doesn’t seem to have changed much since then: Ford hasn’t even testified yet and he and Grassley (also on the committee when it questioned Hill) have already said she is “mistaken” and “mixed up.” As Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has sat on the committee for at least a decade, told The Washington Post, “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close,” which hardly suggests any plan to actually consider any testimony from Ford.

It’s odd that Hatch’s blatant, seemingly blind support for Kavanaugh doesn’t disqualify him from being on the committee considering his appointment. It’s especially worrisome in light of a David Brock tweet claiming that it was Hatch’s staff who selectively leaked part of the FBI investigation into Hill’s claims about Thomas to him. It would not be surprising to hear that Brock is experiencing deja vu these days, harkening back to the days when he was determined to help make Hill appear “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” by printing “virtually every derogatory and often contradictory allegation” he heard about her. Contradictory claims are making a comeback, it seems: Kavanaugh’s defenders have mounted a wild array of excuses for the man. Sometimes it’s that he wasn’t at the party; other times that there never was a party. Or he was at the party but the incident didn’t happen; or it happened but it doesn’t matter because it was a long time ago and apparently teenage boys categorically sexually assault their female peers and that’s acceptable. Or something happened but it was “rough horse play.”

Hill herself penned an op-ed in the New York Times this week, writing that “the public expects better from our government than we got in 1991.” But will we get it? She doesn’t sound so sure: “That the Senate Judiciary Committee still lacks a protocol for vetting sexual harassment and assault claims that surface during a confirmation hearing suggests that the committee has learned little from the Thomas hearing, much less the more recent #MeToo movement.”

It’s fair to wonder why Republicans wouldn’t want to just pick a new nominee. Ford’s accusation is, after all, not the only problem that has come up during the judge’s hearings. He is accused of lying under oath not only this year, but also in 2004 and 2006. The thing he was allegedly lied about: allegedly stolen documents. (A former staffer for Sen. Hatch now claims that Kavanaugh “knew nothing of the source” of the documents he was provided.) It’s also unclear whether he was truthful about his involvement in the vetting of a judicial nominee whom he recommended for the seat. He may have also lied about his involvement with the appeals court nomination of a lawyer who helped develop the Bush-era interrogation torture policies, and another judge who suggested a reduction of the sentence of a man who helped to burn a cross in front of a mixed-race couple’s home. He may have even lied about his knowledge of the interrogation torture policies themselves (according to Sen. Richard Durbin, to whom Kavanaugh professed his ignorance of the Bush administration’s detention and torture policies during his nomination to the D.C. Circuit court, “…[Kavanaugh] had to know he was misleading me and the committee and the people who were following this controversial nomination”).

While legal scholars say Kavanaugh’s actions likely don’t meet the very high bar for perjury, it’s hardly commendable to give someone who apparently struggles to tell the truth under oath — or fully understand the documents he is given or the actions of people he promotes — a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court. There are more than 3,000 federal judges in this country. Is it really not possible for Republicans to find one who has not, willfully or otherwise, said untrue things under oath? The Supreme Court is, after all, the highest court in the land. Wouldn’t it be reasonable, then, to hold the people we put on it to the highest standards?

Moreover, is being the party who insisted on putting not just one, but two men accused of sexual misconduct on the Supreme Court really how the GOP wants to define itself?

Apparently, it is. POLITICO quoted a lawyer “close to the White House” insisting Kavanaugh’s nomination would never be withdrawn. “No way,” the lawyer reportedly said. “If anything, it’s the opposite.” Apparently, the White House is concerned that “if somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.”

This is perhaps not a surprising view from a White House that stands behind a president caught bragging on tape that he doesn’t wait before forcing himself on women because “when you’re a star, they let you do it… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” A president accused of sexual assault by at least 22 women. A president who defended his White House staff secretary after claims of the man’s history of intimate partner violence — which the White House knew about for months — was exposed. Or who said, of child predation allegations against Republican senate candidate Roy Moore, “forty years is a long time.” Or who defended Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Corey Lewandowski and so on. In effect, an endorsement from the Trump White House doesn’t do much to dispel the idea that his chosen nominee may have committed sexual predation.

If anything, it’s the opposite.