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Anita Hill Says Joe Biden's Apology For Clarence Thomas Hearings Is Not Enough


Joe Biden has been in public service for more than 40 years. But the events of several days in October of 1991 are overshadowing the first hours of his newly minted presidential candidacy. We're talking about the confirmation hearings of now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the testimony of Anita Hill. She had accused Thomas of sexual harassment.

Biden's handling of the hearings has been scrutinized in the wake of the #MeToo movement. And as he prepared to announce his run, Biden reached out to Anita Hill to apologize. Hill told The New York Times that Biden's apology left her deeply unsatisfied. Biden offered a version of that apology on ABC's "The View" this morning.


JOE BIDEN: I did everything in my power to do what I thought was within the rules.

CORNISH: Journalist Jane Mayer covered the Hill-Thomas hearings. She also chronicled them in her book, "Strange Justice." Welcome to the studio.

JANE MAYER: Great to be with you.

CORNISH: At the heart of the criticism of Biden's handling of the hearings is his failure to call forth witnesses who could have corroborated Anita Hill's testimony. Can you tell us more about who those witnesses might have been, what they were saying?

MAYER: Right. Well, there were three other women who were ready to testify that they'd had experiences with Clarence Thomas akin to what Anita Hill had experienced. As things unfurled in the hearings, they never got a chance to testify live. And so many people think that that had a huge effect because there was a sense of Anita Hill all alone facing off with Clarence Thomas. And her credibility was on the line. And there was nobody else saying, oh, this happened to me, too.

CORNISH: We heard him on "The View" saying he did everything in his power to do what he thought was within the rules. How does he defend the choices that he made during those hearings?

MAYER: Well, I mean, the thing is the rules were his own rules. He was the one who set them. And he was playing, in some ways, by sort of the Marquess of Queensbury rules, while the other side was playing, sort of, total death. And so his rules bent over backwards to try to accommodate the Republicans.

CORNISH: Give an example. In what way?

MAYER: He agreed to only take testimony about Clarence Thomas's behavior in the workplace. There were people who could have spoken to Clarence Thomas's behavior outside of the workplace that would have corroborated Anita Hill, that is when she described Clarence Thomas talking graphically about pornography. There were many people who could have corroborated that, but they weren't allowed to testify.

CORNISH: Anita Hill also told The New York Times that she believes Biden's handling of the Thomas hearings paved the way for the hearings we saw for Brett Kavanaugh. Do you see parallels there?

MAYER: I think the reason she's holding out and not kind of saying this is all fine now was she felt that there was this, kind of, a repeat of all of this with Kavanaugh. And what she's been calling for is some kind of fairer process, more careful investigation and a kind of a process for accusers that doesn't make them star in a political circus like this.

CORNISH: Knowing what you know and having done the investigative work here, I'm curious to know what you think of his apology and his handling of this episode.

MAYER: You know, it's so many years ago that it's hard to judge someone then by the standards of now. So I have a certain amount of sympathy for that. Yet, what I'm not hearing from him - and I think this must be why people are critical of him, including Anita Hill - is a - sort of a sense of responsibility. He bungled the hearings maybe out of the best of intentions, but it was not a good performance. And he didn't fight a hard fight on her behalf to get the truth out, you know. And so I don't think he's really reckoned with that maybe. And that's what people are saying.

CORNISH: We're hearing reports now that Joe Biden reportedly raised over $6 million in the first 24 hours of announcing his campaign. Do you think that this will matter in the long run? Is this something that Democratic voters are going to hold against him?

MAYER: I don't really know. I'm not a political prognosticator. I'm a reporter. But the question I have looking at Biden is, is he tough enough? Or does he want to be liked so much by all sides that he doesn't, you know, sort of fight hard? And his rhetoric certainly in recent years seems like it's pretty tough. But he did get rolled by the Republicans in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. And even his own counsel, Cynthia Hogan, said this to The Washington Post this week. And so I think that's the question people may have.

CORNISH: Jane Mayer is the chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

MAYER: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.