on April 30, 2016
What was most interesting for me in reading Strange Justice was, oddly enough, Mayer and Abramson’s broader point about the confirmation process for Clarence Thomas. They argue that, Anita Hill aside, the Thomas nomination fight fits well in the broader context of the politics of Supreme Court as they have developed in the last four decades as that institution has become just another front for pitched partisan and ideological warfare. Even if Anita Hill had never been pushed forward into telling her story, the White House would still have taken on the battle to get Thomas on the bench much as they would push a candidate or a major piece of legislation. It would have been a classic post-Bork Supreme Court fight, with a supposedly apolitical position subject to expert stage management and wheeling and dealing by the President’s political operation to mollify critics, smooth over rough edges that would raise objections, carefully target necessary votes, create a narrative that would be attractive for some key senators and difficult to oppose for others, and to hide Thomas’ true views on the critical questions that would come before him as a justice.
They used the power of campaign finance to bring some senators on board, created the appearance of grassroots support/Astroturfed for Thomas to pressure others, and relied on his personal story and racial background to distract from his jurisprudence and qualifications. Mayer and Abramson quite effectively defend their thesis that the Supreme Court has become subject to political campaigns in a way that when they were writing was still a very recent development that the players involved furiously denied. I had always thought of the Thomas nomination as having been something of an aberration from the pattern that began to form after the blocking of Robert Bork, something rendered completely out of sample by virtue of Anita Hill’s accusations. Mayer and Abramson demonstrate that this wasn’t the case, and that Clarence Thomas is in fact another example of what a turning point the Bork fight was for this country’s politics.
This was one of the first non-agenda driven full investigations into Anita Hill’s accusations, and Mayer and Abramson present themselves as coming at the question at hand objectively. There is a very stark choice presented here, one that was obscured by some of Thomas’ defenders – one of these two people lied, and one of them told the truth. Thomas himself made it clear that what Anita Hill described would have been sexual harassment, and denied any of it happened, leaving no wiggle room to claim confusion or misinterpretation (although that didn’t stop people attacking Anita Hill from claiming it for him). The preponderance of the information reviewed by the authors makes it seem plain that Anita Hill was the one being honest and Clarence Thomas had in fact sexually harassed her.
In addition to the consistent finding that Hill was basically an honest person and their arch highlighting of the fact that Thomas clearly lied in other parts of his testimony to Congress when speaking about his legal views, they bring forward evidence that Thomas had a history of enjoying pornography of the type Anita Hill described and spoke of it publicly; had a sense of humor that was often crass and cruel; had a history of misogyny and chauvinism; and had a record of harassing other women. They also talked to numerous witnesses who spoke with Anita Hill about how Thomas treated her and other women, and put Hill’s actions during and after her time working for Clarence Thomas in the proper context both of how women react to sexual harassment in reality and not just how they are “supposed to” act and of Hill’s life (making the case that much of what Anita Hill did makes considerable sense for a woman whose priority was protecting a career that would let her do meaningful work). The book is quite damning of Thomas and quite defensive of Hill, offering little to suggest that Thomas may have been right and much to indicate a great injustice committed against Anita Hill.
Yet, Thomas has now been on the Supreme Court for a quarter-century, pushing an extreme conservative view of the U.S. Constitution, and seems likely to remain there for decades more. (I was particularly struck by the irony of his defense of his own privacy during this fight, from someone who subsequently proved perfectly willing to see the privacy, the intimacy of one’s own bedroom, violated for so many others.) One gleans from Mayer and Abramson’s work that none other than now Vice-President Joe Biden bears more than his fair share of responsibility for that. They put his behavior fairly in the context of someone who had recently been subjected to vicious character attacks and was leery of putting someone else through the same treatment and someone who was leading a committee full of Democrats who had their own political reasons not to press Thomas, but he also is portrayed as getting rolled without putting up much of a fight.
Biden is limited in his options by Thomas and the White House’s racialization of the hearings, but he also consistently fails to be aggressive in seeking answers or to demonstrate leadership on behalf of Hill, who he said after the fact he believed. The Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were ready to protect Clarence Thomas, and the Democrats, led by Joe Biden, simply did not adopt a similar advocate’s role on Anita Hill’s behalf. I walked away from this book with the firm impression that if Biden had been willing to push her case, or even just to stand in the way of the Republican insistence of going as fast as possible with the hearings, that Thomas would have had to withdraw. Instead, one is forced to confront whether Biden didn’t actually believe Anita Hill or he did not believe that the sort of sexual harassment she described disqualified Thomas from the highest court in the land. (While Mayer and Abramson do not make this point explicitly, it is worth remembering that that the political savaging and public assault on this one woman was also done in no small part in the name of a denial rights to all women – the attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade, something that Biden was steadfastly opposed to.)
All that being said, one theme that runs through this book is that a lot of people involved here, whether politician or media, didn’t care about the facts so much as their agendas, and I couldn’t help thinking of that in considering Mayer and Abramson’s own conclusions. As someone who isn’t actually going to conduct a full-scale study of this chapter in history, I am reliant on these authors to present the facts and their takeaways fairly because it won’t be automatically apparent to me when they aren’t. I can be critical of what I read, but I only see what they chose to shine their flashlight at unless I actively try to get a flashlight of my own and cast it further. There could be a wealth of relevant information they chose not to present that might muddy the waters they used this book to clear.
This is not to suggest that Mayer and Abramson ARE wrong or biased (and their case does gibe with much of what I remember having read in other places, although it’s probably burdened by the fact that Justice Thomas declined to speak with them) so much as it is simply to observe that a casual reader of political history is implicitly asked to put a great deal of faith in ANY author that they aren’t.
(Moreover, the facts are also shaped by the way they are obtained. By necessity, a lot of Mayer and Abramson’s work here is interviews of people who knew Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas after the fact. These are all people who knew exactly what the narratives they were contradicting or supporting were going into their conversations with Mayer and Abramson, and whether consciously or unconsciously it seems likely that that shaped the stories they told.)
I was also reminded over the course of reading this book that one should look skeptically at the definitive assignment of one particular cause to any political development – Mayer and Abramson discuss the defeat of Senator Wyche Fowler, which they tie to his support of Clarence Thomas, and which another book I read earlier this year about abortion politics quite confidently attributed to his failure to position himself properly in a libertarian understanding of a woman’s right to choose. One can easily imagine either of these issues playing a role, but one should consider that both books might be overclaiming the impact of their particular focus on the race, something that would not have necessarily occurred to me if I hadn’t read them so close together.
One final thing I wanted to comment on was that Mayer and Abramson spend a lot of time trying to un-erase the human element from our politics. It’s really at the heart of this book – getting down to who Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill really are. In examining political players through a purely political lens, we end up denying their humanity, the fact that they make mistakes and get scared and don’t do the “logical thing” and lie when it’s in their best interest and aren’t as brave as they wish they were and have decisions that are impacted by small external things and have personalities that define them for better or worse. Political figures are in fact people, and their traits and their imperfections can shape their actions in the same way as they do everyone else’s. The difference is that people in the public eye rarely get credit for it. That fact played a huge role in the attacks on Anita Hill’s credibility in particular, but it comes up again and again in this book and in American political discourse every single day. We’d all be better off keeping it in mind.