Some of us are old enough to remember the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation battle. We were shocked when reports first surfaced that Thomas, a well-regarded former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was being accused of sexual harassment. But then we heard his accuser’s ever-changing and uncorroborated testimony, and we compared it with the testimony of a dozen close female colleagues who effusively praised Thomas as a boss known for how well he treated the women around him. We learned that his accuser Anita Hill’s testimony was contradicted by data and evidence. Thomas won his confirmation battle. By the end of the confirmation hearing, surveys of the American people showed overwhelming disbelief in Hill’s claims.
Some partisans who strongly oppose Clarence Thomas politically have spent the intervening 25 years trying to shade those hearings and the evidence they uncovered in a light less favorable to Thomas and more favorable to Hill. Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson wrote a scandalously unfair book on the matter.
Debuting this past weekend on HBO, “Confirmation” — described as a “fictionalized look” at one dramatic part of the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings — is the latest in this unrelenting push to rewrite history. The movie is fictionalized, of course, and notable for its selective use of information to paint an unfavorable view of Thomas. But many in the media are treating it as if the movie is legitimate. Others don’t seem to realize how fantastical the movie is. Brian Tallerico ended his negative review of the film by writing, “It is a recounting of events, which is historically important, but, as filmmaking, it’s just fine.”
But it’s not a recounting of events, and certainly not a remotely faithful recounting of events. Here are a few things to keep in mind as we endure Round 417 of Operation Rewrite History.
1) Maliciously Negligent Storytelling
Brookings Institution senior fellow Stuart Taylor was a reporter covering the hearings. He wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal that details some of the major omissions and manipulations the movie makes. Hill’s claim was that Thomas pestered her for dates and spoke to her in a sexually explicit manner. Thomas strenuously denied any and all charges.
- The movie ignored how dramatically Hill’s testimony changed over the course of Thomas’ confirmation hearings, as well as her claim that FBI agents had told her that was okay. The FBI agents said they never told her that.
- It ignored the five times Hill denied being told something by a Democratic staffer that she later admitted, under oath, she’d been told.
- It didn’t mention that Hill claimed she followed Thomas from one job to another because she feared losing her job. In fact, she was a career employee in the federal government, known to her to be an incredibly secure job.
- The movie presents her claim — that she followed him from one job to the next because he briefly stopped harassing her — as plausible.
- The movie suggests that the many phone calls she made to Thomas over the years after they ceased being colleagues were just professional, despite evidence, such as a note from a secretary recounting Hill’s purpose in calling as, “Just called to say hello. Sorry she didn’t get to see you last week.”
- The movie presents an employee he’d fired for using a homophobic slur as being a credible witness. That witness is portrayed in the movie as being pressured against testifying by then-Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden. What the movie leaves out is that he didn’t want her to testify because multiple, former colleagues were prepared to testify that she’d specifically vowed revenge on Thomas for the firing, which would make her a laughably bad witness.
- The other “corroborating witness” claimed that Hill had told her all about the harassment she suffered in a phone call which, it turned out, took place before Hill even worked for Thomas.
- And rather than show the dozen female colleagues effusively praising Thomas with still-memorable testimony in favor of Thomas, it shows one, along with two male witnesses.
It’s worth watching this brief montage of the highlights from those women, since you won’t see anything like it in “Confirmation.” Their testimony is riveting:
2) Woefully Undeserved Praise of Anita Hill
Played by the talented Kerry Washington, HBO’s version of Anita Hill is a brave warrior fighting against the epidemic of sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s worth comparing that with the real-life Hill. Apart from her inability to substantiate her claims of sexual harassment, she has a curious habit of downplaying actual sexual harassment when it’s done by Democratic politicians. Consider the comments she made regarding Bill Clinton’s sexual harassment of women such as Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Monica Lewinsky.
Appearing on “Meet the Press” in 1998, Hill was asked to respond to Gloria Steinem’s defense of President Clinton following allegations he’d groped a White House volunteer. Steinem had said, “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the president is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life.”
Hill agreed, saying the volunteer didn’t claim the behavior was “severe, ongoing, or pervasive enough that it became a condition of her employment.” She then went through a list of presidents who had been sexually unfaithful in office before noting that it was a shame that Americans were learning of Clinton’s infidelities while he was in office:
“For President Clinton, he’s going to suffer a disadvantage because it is now that these allegations are coming out, during his presidency. But I think what Ms. Steinem also says is we have to look at the totality of the presidency and how has he been on women’s issues generally? Is he our best bet, notwithstanding some behavior that we might dislike? I don’t think that most women have come to the point where we’ve said, “Well this is so bad that even if he is better on the bigger issues, we can’t have him as president.'”
Here’s the video of that exchange:
When “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert asked her if she had a double standard for sexual harassment claims made against Clinton, she said, “There are larger issues, larger issues than just individual behavior.”
Hill’s sentiment was expressed more memorably by journalist Nina Burleigh: “I would be happy to give [Clinton] a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”
When asked about Paula Jones’ sexual harassment case against Clinton, which was eventually settled out of court when Clinton paid her $850,000, Hill pooh-poohed the case. She said her claim didn’t meet the standard necessary, including no harm to her career.
Of course, Hill never claimed that against Thomas either. She never filed a civil suit or sought a restraining order against him. She had no supporting evidence to substantiate her claims, which almost derailed a Supreme Court nomination.
In an interview last week with the discredited Rolling Stone — the magazine that was forced to retract their article, “A Rape on Campus,” on account of it having been made up — Hill sang a different tune yet again saying, “We’ve got to make the decision that we’re going to reject people who behave badly, who are sexually abusive.”
Russert’s question about double standards comes to mind again.
3) The Unrelenting Push to Change History
Partisans have never quite gotten over their inability to derail Justice Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court. “Confirmation” isn’t even the first one-sided TV movie about the saga. Showtime did one in 1999 based on the book by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson. Jane Mayer, who has elevated unfair hit pieces to an art form, is known in recent years for her campaigns against the Koch brothers. Abramson was recently let go as executive editor of The New York Times and is now writing for The Guardian. A favorite recent column is her March 28 piece headlined, “This may shock you: Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest.” Speaking of Hillary Clinton, Mayer is apparently cozy enough with her people to tip her off to unpublished stories in The New York Times (where Mayer’s husband is the Washington editor).
The original story was pushed by Nina Totenberg, easily NPR’s most biased reporter. As one great journalist put it, “I think the thing that I would criticize Nina for is that she is simply a partisan.” She is perhaps most well-known for wishing a Republican senator would get AIDS, but her bias is usually much more subtle and nuanced. Totenberg, a Supreme Court reporter, is known for her friendships with liberal activists and judges. Her activism on the Anita Hill story won her all the awards that journalists love to bestow on one another, as well as the disrespect from those who wish the media weren’t so in the tank on abortion and other progressive causes.
Even though the public overwhelmingly believed Thomas and his bevy of supporting witnesses over Hill, the media never got over his confirmation. The media and progressives never hid their belief that Thomas, a black man with views they don’t think black men should be allowed to have, is dangerous. Whether they even believed Hill’s claims is uncertain. What is certain is that they have used those discredited claims in their campaign to defame the man. It would simply be sad if it weren’t so damaging.
Hill is doing a round of media interviews to promote the film, and Totenberg and Abramson are happy to talk about it as well. The folks who don’t get the special treatment offered to political allies are so appalled by the fiction being passed off as history that they’re threatening legal action.
As one Twitter user noted:
Ironic that the Anita Hill HBO movie tag line includes the phrase “to change history.”
neontaster (@neontaster) March 23, 2016
That is the goal of such productions. Revise the facts to fit the narrative and rewrite history. They did it with the laughably bad reimagining of Dan Rather’s demise, and they do it here.
But after 25 years of this crap, enough is enough.