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Parsing The Lasting Legacy Of Clarence Thomas' Confirmation Fight

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We wanted to take another look at those historic hearings to talk about just how dramatic those events really were and how the hearings affected the way we talk about gender in the workplace now. So we called two people who found themselves playing in the whole drama. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District of Columbia in Congress. She was among a group of female lawmakers who took the highly unusual step of walking over from the floor of the House of Representatives to try to talk to their colleagues in the U.S. Senate because they felt that the Senate Judiciary Committee - at the time all white and all male - were not taking Anita Hill's claims of sexual harassment seriously enough during the hearings.

Also joining me is Alvin Thornton. He is an author and longtime professor of political science at Howard University, who'd served in public office himself. He also took the unusual step of leaving his campus to try to get into the hearings. And also joining us for additional context is NPR's own Nina Totenberg, who, along with Timothy Phelps at Newsday, broke the story of Anita Hill's sexual harassment claims, and in that role found herself like the rest of us, just trying to make sense of it all. I started by asking Delegate Norton about that now-famous photograph of her, along with Congresswoman Barbara Boxer, Nita Lowey and Pat Schroeder and others heading over to the Senate. It ran on the front pages of newspapers across the country. And I asked her what the conversation had been before they headed over.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: The women in Congress had seen her on television. We went to the floor to do what we call one minute. Then the word came that Senate Democrats were meeting at lunch, and we thought they might decide what they were going to do. So we broke up exactly to where the Democratic senators were having lunch. We knocked on the door. The door cracked.

The Senate leader said I'm sorry, you can't come in. We say why not? They say the senators are having a meeting. We said but you've got here what we say. We did not get into that room. And then we just had to do other things to let everyone know why we were coming over there and that we feared that the Democratic senators - these were members of our own party - were simply going to let Clarence Thomas become a justice of the Supreme Court without even reviewing what everyone had seen on television with Anita having come forward.

MARTIN: Was the issue at that time that they were going to call her to testify? Was that the particular issue that sent you over there, or...

NORTON: We believe that she was not going to be called because we had seen nothing to indicate that her decision to come out - and I must tell you, it took something to make her come forward - had phased the Democratic members of the Judiciary member - Committee - at all.

MARTIN: Nina Totenberg, what about that? Congresswoman Norton just said it took something to get her to come forward at all. Can you just talk about that? I mean, are there misconceptions about that now that you want to clear up? Or...

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: That may have been true. You know, all history is Rorschach test, and you view it from your experience. And my experience was I didn't know about it. And I saw the members of the committee on the day that they were voting. They all had the same envelope, the same document that they were looking at.

And Biden said some weird thing - I wish I could remember exactly what it was - but the essence of it was we don't want the hearings to be based on rank gossip, or something like that. And I thought what rank gossip? When I - you know, I went out and I started - as I've said before - shaking the trees and fruit started falling on my head. And so I found out her name. I called up Anita Hill. She said she wouldn't talk to me unless I had a copy of her affidavit. So I got the affidavit. I'm...

MARTIN: But to the point of calling this rank gossip, my recollection at the time - because I was a White House correspondent...

TOTENBERG: I'm not sure if that's the term he used.

MARTIN: But was it - but was it a question of people really not understanding the significance of it? Because I remember there were debates in newsrooms - there are news organizations that did not follow this up for days because they didn't understand what it was and whether it was significant. Do you remember being - do you remember that...

TOTENBERG: Well, you know...

MARTIN: ...Some tusslement (ph) about whether it was important...

TOTENBERG: ...I held the story actually for at least a day and a half trying to get hold of Biden because I kept thinking what am I missing here that you didn't follow up on this? And I wanted an actual explanation, and I never got one from him. He never - you know, I tried everything. He never called back. And pretty soon it was obvious that I just had to get it out there. I had a scoop. I needed to get it out there. And I thought the story as much as anything was that the Senate Judiciary Committee didn't do its job. It never really occurred to me this would be such a big deal.

MARTIN: Alvin Thronton, you have an interesting story about the hearings I wanted to ask you about. You actually, like - sort of analogous to Congressman Norton - just went down there because why?

ALVIN THORNTON: I saw a black man I think affronting a black woman. He was doing that. You know, and for me...

MARTIN: Affronting her how?

THORNTON: Well, you know, at that time, women - particularly black women - were just getting some respect in this country legally in terms of employment, in terms of justice, in terms of space and dignity. And he in one fell swoop was undermining that just to become a Supreme Court justice.

MARTIN: Nina Totenberg, you wanted to say something really quickly?

TOTENBERG: Yeah. I mean, Alvin, you assume that he's not telling the truth. And that's a luxury I don't have, number one. And number two, the committee did everything in its power to ensure that we would never know - by the way that they conducted the hearing, by not doing an investigation. When nobody knew about this and they might have actually gotten real answers, they never were able to resolve this. And while you appear to be completely convinced in your mind, I have never been that convinced. I wasn't that convinced that day. I was pretty convinced when I talked to her. But when I heard him, I was not convinced.

THORNTON: But are we limiting the hearing to Anita and Clarence? I do not do that. We knew that he was in opposition to affirmative action. We knew that he was in support of over-policing. We knew that he was in opposition to Parren Mitchell's 10 percent set aside. We knew that

MARTIN: But let me ask you this, Congresswoman Norton. I was interested to know - as a Washingtonian, as a member of the House, as a person who was a former chair of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission - had a particular point of view about Clarence Thomas's record and his jurisprudence. But wouldn't it be fair to say that a lot of African-Americans - all they knew was here is an African-American man who has been nominated for this position and that Anita Hill is a traitor and - by just sort of standing in the path of this person. And I wanted to know if other people approached you that way, too. Did they feel that you were wrong?

NORTON: It's very important that you brought that up because in point of fact, most black people, knowing nothing about him, were for him. And I remember to the very end, even after Anita Hill, there were polls that showed that most black people were for him. That was what was painful to me. And they hadn't looked to see where he stood on the issues. They were embarrassed by the allegations. They didn't want to take a stand. Some of us were outspoken about the stand that we took based on what we believed to be her credibility. And I can tell you as a lawyer, I have never seen a witness more credible than Anita Hill was. Of course, I did not know, but it seemed to me - and certainly from the point of view of the Democratic senators should've been why take a chance putting that stain on the Supreme Court of the United States?

MARTIN: So let's wheel around now to what affect this whole incident, episode had on the way these issues are now discussed. I mean, Nina Totenberg, do you think that there's a broader public understanding of these issues now, or how do you think it affected the way people think about this?

TOTENBERG: Well, at the time, the reason I suspect that I had no idea this would be such a big deal is that sexual harassment was a - pretty much a dirty little secret. It's not that it didn't happen to women in the workplace. It happened all the time in varying permutations. But women by and large didn't talk about it, were very embarrassed by it. On the day after my story broke, I was astonished. I mean, the fax machines were vaporizing. The phones were exploding with women who this had just touched such a raw nerve with their own experiences.

MARTIN: But do you feel - my recollection was that at the time of the hearings, most of the country - Delegate Norton pointed out that most African-Americans did not believe Anita Hill. I don't think most of the country believed her, but I believe a year later that the polls had completely turned around. Nina, just - if you could just tie a - one brief bow on that, what do you think that made such an impression?

TOTENBERG: I think in part people were being asked immediately to choose up sides. And that was a really hard thing to do, number one. Number two, a year later he had a record. And the record began to look not so much like the person he portrayed in the first set of hearings - as being very open on a whole bunch of issues. He seemed to be much more what his opponents said he was - extremely conservative on a whole variety of issues. And I'm not saying that those positions are wrong per se. They are just different than what he sold himself as. So that may have had something to do about it. And the other thing I just have to say is I don't know why it turned around.

MARTIN: What's your final thought though, professor Thornton, on what you think the legacy is?

THORNTON: Well, that we should take issues certainly involving sexual harassment very seriously when they are made, that there is a continuing and a legacy in that particular area in this country.

MARTIN: Congresswoman, is there a final thought you want to make?

NORTON: Anita Hill was the only person who could raise the sexual harassment claim. She raised it. She made history. It took a great deal of courage to raise it. People who disagree with me are entitled to get on the Supreme Court of the United States. So if all the Democrats had against him is a more conservative history than most of us who are Democrats would've liked, that would not have been a reason to keep him off the court. There was a much more important reason, and that went to his character, as shown by his treatment of Anita Hill.

MARTIN: That was D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. She represents the District of Columbia in Congress, Howard University political scientist Alvin Thorton and NPR's own Nina Totenberg. Alvin Thorton and Nina Totenberg here in Washington, D.C., Eleanor Holmes Norton in New York, thank you all so much for speaking with us.

THORNTON: Thank you.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

NORTON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: For Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Before we sign off, we have a few more poems we'd like to share with you. Here's one from Philip Boiarski (ph). (Reading) We need more kitchen poetry, simple as onions or potatoes, every day as common crust or the snap and crunch of carrots and apples.

And this last one comes from a Twitter poet who tweets @WritingY (ph). In brief, she left a note, an orange cat and dishes. On Facebook, her explanation that love was dead was well liked. Keep sending us your submissions at #NPRpoetry. You can follow us on Twitter - @npratc or follow me - @NPRMichel. We are back tomorrow. Until then, we thank you for listening. And we hope you have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.