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Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: The Bizarre and the Unsurprising

4 years ago
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Virginia Thomas' entreaty to Anita Hill seems strange. But it does not strike me as surprising.

Wouldn't anyone find it strange that lo' these two decades after Justice Clarence Thomas' infamously embarrassing confirmation hearings, Justice Thomas' wife seems not to have moved on with her life? Anita Hill certainly has gotten beyond her 15 minutes of tormented fame.

What in the world would give Ginni Thomas the idea that she might succeed at getting a woman who is not apologetic in the least, to apologize? This especially when Anita Hill has nothing for which to apologize.

On the other hand, as one who covered the Supreme Court for nine years, including Clarence Thomas' 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings and his first six years on the bench, there is little by way of bizarre behavior that he or his wife could exhibit that might surprise me.

Last weekend, Mrs. Thomas breathed new life into a long-dormant story when, according to ABC News, as quoted by the New York Times, Mrs. Thomas left the following voice mail at Professor Hill's office at Brandeis University at 7:30 a.m. Brandeis is where now-Prof. Hill teaches law:

"Good morning, Anita Hill, it's Ginni Thomas," she said. "I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something.

"I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought and certainly pray about this and come to understand why you did what you did. Okay have a good day."

Wacky? Yes. But not surprising. Strange behavior is nothing new to Ginny Thomas. The Washington Post reported that in 1999, she called Washington Post reporter Tom Jackman after he wrote a front-page article about a Virginia man falsely accused of being a sex pervert. Weeping, she told Jackman that the story reminded her of the ordeal she and her husband had endured. "My husband's name is Clarence Thomas," she said.

Professor Hill, on the other hand, comes across as a more centered human being who was unintentionally dragged into making history. Yes, dragged. During those now-infamous confirmation hearings, Hill appeared uncomfortable in the spotlight and scared at having been vacuumed into the high drama that Senate confirmation hearings can become.

Hill is not someone who sought public attention. She filed a confidential affidavit about her personal encounters with Thomas. She said he acted quite strangely, discussing pubic hairs on soda cans and other notable off-color remarks. It took not one but two reporters to talk her into going public with her story, after they were leaked information about why the committee was trying to rush Mr. Thomas' nomination to a floor vote. NPR's Nina Totenberg was one of those reporters and the one who talked Hill into her first public interview:

"...(Totenberg) discovered that Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor and former employee of Thomas, had filed a confidential affidavit with the Judiciary Committee alleging that Hill had been sexually harassed by the judicial nominee. Another reporter, Timothy Phelps of Newsday, also discovered this independently and broke the story on October 5, 1991. But it was Totenberg who obtained a copy of the affidavit as well as an interview with Hill and issued the complete report a day later on NPR's Weekend Edition."

I should note for the record that personal friends of Thomas and some of his former law clerks describe him as affable, selfless and fun to be around. But that is not the persona he projects in public.

During the years I covered him as a justice, for example, he never once asked a question during a Supreme Court argument. And he was frequently seen to be falling asleep during arguments. He was famously unfriendly toward the Supreme Court press corps, and seemed to regard us as a bunch of vultures. He did not appear affable nor friendly.

His book, "My Grandfather's Son," speaks for the most part admiringly about his grandfather, who took him in and raised him and his brother after their father abandoned them as young children. But I recall, too, an incident in which I once saw him speak publicly about his grandfather as unrelentingly tough on him and his brother, forcing them into physical labor on weekends and during early mornings when they were not in school.

Thomas' grandfather famously denied the boys the chance to ever sleep late and taunted them for acting like rich kids when they complained about routine pre-dawn wake-up calls, as recounted in the book, "Judging Thomas: The Life & Times of Clarence Thomas" by Ken Foskett.

"The morning ritual became so ingrained that Clarence often sensed his grandfather's presence in the predawn darkness before he heard his deep voice. "Get up, Boy," he barked. "Y'all think y'all are rich!" Clarence Thomas cannot remember a single morning of his childhood that he was not up to see daybreak.
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