Brett Kavanaugh

Will the Senate Avoid the Horrible Mistakes of the Anita Hill Hearing?

Once again, legislators have to confront a Supreme Court nominee accused of acting horribly toward a woman.
September 18, 2018, 11:23pm
Left: Photo of Anita Hill in 1991 by JENNIFER LAW/AFP/Getty. Right: Photo of Brett Kavanaugh by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

On Monday, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers at a party in the 80s, are set to both testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. And anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Supreme Court nomination fights knows that we've been here before, 27 years ago.

In 1991, Anita Hill told the Senate Judiciary Committee and all of America that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her boss at two federal agencies. She described him not just asking her out repeatedly, but talking about his own anatomy, bestiality videos he'd watched, and one particular porn actor who went by Long Dong Silver. After being smeared as a liar by parts of the public and treated with palpable skepticism by Joe Biden, Hill had her allegations dismissed. Thomas was confirmed by the Senate and still sits on the bench today.

In some ways, we're living in a very different time. We're now more than a year into a cultural revolution that has prioritized seriously listening to women's accusations about sexual assault. There are also two women on the Senate Judiciary Committee now—in part because the Hill hearings laid bare how male Congress was when her hearings were televised. But in other ways, it seems that we're preparing for a repeat of the past. We have an accused predator in the Oval Office, and comedians, journalists, and entertainers outed as creeps in the wake of #MeToo are already being granted comebacks.

To get a sense of what the upcoming hearings might look like, I spoke to Nan Aron, the president of the liberal advocacy group Alliance for Justice. She opposed Thomas's confirmation and has been active in vetting Kavanaugh’s record this time around. Here's what we talked about:

VICE:How would you explain what it was like to watch the Anita Hill hearings to someone too young to remember? Was that something everyone in America watched?
Nan Aron: I would say anyone who was informed even a little bit about Anita Hill watched the hearings. Millions tuned in to see Republicans engage in a character assassination. It was painful and outrageous, not only because these Republicans engaged on a relentless assault on her work, character, and intelligence, but the other disappointing aspect of it was that Democrats were quiet. They sat back and allowed the attacks to go forth. And I do think that Americans all over the country will be looking at this on their phones and computers, not only because it's a hearing about a very serious allegation, but it's about the #MeToo movement. And #MeToo has got to be more than just a Twitter hashtag, it's a serious pledge. And many people will be watching to see how much society has changed over the years. It's a real test, I think, for the Senate and the country to see if they can not just hear, but listen to, the allegation.

Would this accusation have held so much weight if the Republicans hadn't already spent so much time talking about how Kavanaugh's volunteers for his daughters soccer teams and holding him up as this paragon of morality who volunteers at soup kitchens?
The first thing to understand is that by sharing only 7 percent of Kavanaugh's records [from his time in the George W. Bush White House], they've gone to extreme lengths to hide anything remotely negative in his background or character. They've only chosen to portray him as a champion of young women and girls. The only people they can blame for the situation they now face is themselves, because they refused to share information about Kavanaugh's character and fitness. They chose to share only a tiny bit of information that placed him in a good light.

And am I right that the accusations against Clarence Thomas accusation were such a big deal because Republicans touted his moral character as a reason to make up for his lack of experience as a judge?
Well, what he had going for him that Brett Kavanaugh doesn't was that he stressed his impoverished background growing up in Georgia. That became the narrative of Clarence Thomas's hearing—how he came up by his own bootstraps, whereas Kavanaugh was portrayed as an advocate for women.

Is the composition of the Judiciary Committee or Congress more broadly substantially different enough as to change how things go this time around?
It's an important to remember that right after Thomas was confirmed, the nation elected a Democrat as president and many women legislators. And in addition, some of the senators who voted for Thomas lost their seats. Obviously, the Republicans are still all male. Two of them who remain on the committee were on the committee for the Hill hearings. I would say Republicans now as then have been hellbent on getting Kavanaugh at any and all costs.

And for the Clarence Thomas hearings, was there a parallel to Mark Judge, who was supposedly at the party where Kavanuagh's alleged assault occurred? Who testified?
There were a whole host of witnesses introduced, but the important thing aspect of the Hill hearings with respect to those witnesses is that they never called three women who would have corroborated the allegations. That was a big thing.

Obviously there's been a huge cultural shift in the past year or so with #MeToo, but then again, Joe Biden's reputation on the left does not seem to suggest that the public largely thinks the Anita Hill hearings were a disaster.
I'm not sure about that. I certainly think that his role in the Anita Hill hearings and how poorly she was treated will be in a factor in his decision whether or not to run for president. I just don't know if people know or remember the role that he played during Clarence Thomas's confirmation. A lot has been written about it and it certainly will be resurrected as an important issue if he were to consider running for president in 2020.

Well, I guess if people don't immediately remember this person's enormous role in these hearings, they probably don't remember very much about them at all. And that doesn't make me think that people have learned from them and will do anything differently.
But people will be reminded as we continue toward this path toward confirmation because of the seriousness of the allegations and her credible fear that Republicans will attempt to do to her what they did to Anita Hill years ago. I think even if they do, the American public will push as hard as they can to stop the confirmation. But at the end of the day, this president has so little in terms of accomplishments to bring to his base that this nomination wll be supercharged by the White House to at least let people share news that the president was able to confirm two Supreme Court justices.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.