There is plenty of blame to go around, but for my money, the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings were a seminal moment in our current political environment. With his book coming out, and him giving his first interviews in years in support of it, we’re hearing from both him and his accuser, who could not let talk of this go by without crawling out into the sun herself. Thomas describes Hill as a mediocre employee who did not take slights well and only complained about not being promoted. Hill described a man who made an offhand remark about pubic hair 10 years earlier, well before Thomas was even nominated.
Hill may or may not have told the truth, but it sure appeared she wasn’t. Thomas described the accusations as a ‘high-tech lynching’, and, it had all the earmarks of being just that. Even if she was telling the truth, which 15 years later I just can’t believe in the slightest, the real truth was that these hearings were clearly about abortion primarily and race secondarily. He was replacing Thurgood Marshall and liberals were aghast that Thomas was both black and ‘conservative’, legally speaking. They were even more upset that he was pro-life, and possibly a swing vote on issues of abortion. The left was apoplectic that a black man could rise to the United States Supreme Court holding views of which these liberals did not approve. My god, if he became a justice, who knows how many other African-Americans might start considering non-liberal points of view? Not to mention there was a Republican president nominating an African-American, which made it harder for the left to paint all conservatives with the ‘racist’ label. The sense of panic from the left during the summer of 1991 was palpable. But they couldn’t attack him on these merits, so they drummed up ridiculous-sounding charges of sexual harassment in order to try and derail the nomination. An activist for the National Organization for Women encapsulated this mania quite nicely, saying “We’re going to bork him. We’re going to kill him politically. . . . This little creep, where did he come from?”. Liberals were clearly quite angry that a member of a minority group dared to oppose them, and much of their tone throughout the hearings were tinged with barely disguised racism.
Her own quote conjures memories of a successful liberal attack, this one four years earlier on Robert Bork. But I believe the Thomas nomination was a more important moment. Despite it’s failure, it seemed to encourage politicians of both stripes about the effectiveness of personal attacks, even ones as full of crap as the one launched against Thomas. Since then,we’ve seen conservatives turn the tables, going after Bill Clinton with just as much fury, and liberals later doing the same against George W. Bush.
Thomas has become a fairly stalwart conservative justice, with occasional libertarian leanings, as in Raich v. Gonzales, for instance. His confirmation hearing may well have had a larger effect on the modern political era. The left, with reprehensible behavior and the most tenous of allegations, nearly succeeded in preventing Thomas’ rise to the court.