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Why Thomas Confirmation Hearings Resonate Now More Than Ever


Brett Kavanaugh is not the first presidential nominee to have his run to the Supreme Court stalled at the finish line by a woman's accusations. Throughout this week of turmoil in Washington, the historical backdrop has been the 1991 confrontation between Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and a former colleague named Anita Hill. It was a defining moment for the country.

And today in the era of the #MeToo movement, as we watch the downfall of many powerful men for sexual harassment and assault, the confirmation hearings for Judge Thomas resonate more than ever. For a timely history lesson, we turn to senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving, the man we call professor Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: If you're in your 30s, you might remember your parents hustling you out of the room when people started talking about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. President George H.W. Bush had nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, an African-American who had recently been named a federal judge. Thomas was named to the High Court after the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall - then the only black member in the court's history. And despite some rocky moments in his first round of hearings, Thomas appeared certain to be confirmed. But then a new witness appeared.


ANITA HILL: Mr. Chairman, Senator Thurmond, members of the committee, my name is Anita F. Hill.

ELVING: Hill was a law professor who had worked for Thomas years earlier at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She testified that Thomas, as her boss, repeatedly tried to date her and subjected her to extensive, unwanted conversations about sex and pornography.


HILL: The incident involved his going to his desk - getting up from a work table, going to his desk, looking at this can and saying, who put pubic hair on my Coke?

ELVING: Joe Biden was chairman of the Senate judiciary committee in October of 1991. And he questioned Hill about her encounters with Thomas.


JOE BIDEN: What was the content of what he said?

HILL: Well, this was a reference to an individual who had a very large penis. And he used the name that he had been referred to in the pornographic material.

BIDEN: Do you recall what it was?

HILL: Yes, I do. The name that was referred to was Long Dong Silver.

ELVING: Millions followed the hearings in fascination - both political and prurient. But when Thomas came back to answer Hill's testimony, he denied her accusations categorically and added this...


CLARENCE THOMAS: From my standpoint as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who, in any way, deign to think for themselves.

ELVING: The clash between Hill and Thomas, both African-Americans, left the judiciary committee visibly uncomfortable, as all 14 members from both parties were white and male. For Republicans, the order of the day was defending the president's nominee, which meant pummeling the nominee's accuser. Here's Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter.


ARLEN SPECTER: You testified this morning in response to Senator Biden that the most embarrassing question involved - this is not too bad - women's large breasts. That's a word we use all the time.

ELVING: The Democrats were free to oppose the president's nominee but reluctant to oppose a black nominee. Committee Chairman Biden wanted to wrap it up. He decided not to call three additional witnesses who also had accusations against Thomas. And this past week, Biden once again said he regretted his handling of the Thomas hearings and apologized to Anita Hill. Here he is on NBC's "Today" show.


BIDEN: Anita Hill was vilified when she came forward by a lot of my colleagues' character assassination. I wish I could've done more to prevent those questions and the way they asked them. I hope my colleagues learned from that.

ELVING: Biden did vote against Thomas, as did most of the committee. But the nomination still went to the full Senate.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The question is on the confirmation of the nomination of Clarence Thomas of Georgia.

ELVING: Which confirmed him...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: On this vote, the yeas are 52, and the nays are 48.

ELVING: The closest such vote on a Supreme Court nomination since the 1800s. Today, Thomas still sits on the court at 70, the longest serving among the current justices. He has thus far escaped any further scrutiny. But as the current national soul searching over sexual harassment continues, his history is often mentioned. Hill, now 62, pursued her career as a legal scholar and is now a university professor at Brandeis. Appearing on NBC's "Meet The Press" last year, she reflected on 1991 as it pertains to the present.


HILL: We are going to have to make some very tough decisions about people who we otherwise admire. And I think this is really something that we haven't come to terms with.

ELVING: Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.