“The hearings ripped open the subject of sexual harassment like some long-festering sore.”
– Nina Totenberg
The U.S. Senate hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court have gone from the mundane (replete with the standard and predictable inquiries into the candidate’s judiciary paper trail) to the hyper-dramatic. Not since Clarence Thomas’ 1991 confirmation has an otherwise routine and constitutionally required procedure descended into the chaos normally reserved for daytime melodramas.
The Thomas fiasco was a ready-made soap opera. Gossip columnists and entertainment industry executives all felt they’d died and gone to ‘Trash TV Heaven.’ In general, only the nerdiest of academic scholars viewed SCOTUS hearings with rapt attention. But the Thomas proceedings quickly devolved into a media event when the Senate discovered – among the slew of Thomas documents – a complaint by one of his former colleagues, Anita Hill, accusing the judge of sexual harassment on the job. Hill had worked for Thomas in the early 1980s, when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. The hearings had technically concluded, and a vote was about to take place. Then Nina Totenberg, a correspondent with National Public Radio (NPR), received a copy of an affidavit Hill had completed several weeks earlier in response to a Senate request for any and all information regarding her dealings with Thomas. Such requests are standard for Supreme Court nominations, as well as other high-level government positions. The vote on Thomas most likely would have taken place without further discussion had the Hill affidavit not appeared. (The source of the leak to Totenberg has never been revealed.)
The vote was delayed, and the soap opera commenced. Hill described in graphic detail how Thomas asked her out repeatedly during their time working together. She made it clear, however, that he never touched her and never threatened her. But his behavior made her uncomfortable, and she was concerned for her job. Apparently, he got the message and stopped. Hill wasn’t the only woman to file a formal complaint against Thomas, but she had been the first. And she was the only one called to testify before the Senate during Thomas’ hearing. Despite her testimony, Thomas was confirmed 52-48, in one of the narrowest Supreme Court votes in history.
The controversy – especially the sight of an all-male Senate committee questioning Hill – prompted a feminist backlash. Months later, 1992 was dubbed the “Year of the Woman”. It also happened to be an election year, which subsequently saw large numbers of women elected to public office across the nation. It also put Bill Clinton into the White House. As anyone of a certain age might recall, Clinton became the focus of his own sexual indiscretions. Ironically, many of the same people who demonized Clarence Thomas championed Bill Clinton and proclaimed accusations of his flirtatious peccadillos were simply good old-fashioned sludge politics. Or what Hilary Clinton deemed a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Apparently, the New Feminist Order didn’t include the likes of Gennifer Flowers or Paula Jones. I recall plenty of women scoffing at the news that – in 1990 – Jones visited then-Governor Bill Clinton in his hotel room late at night on the promise of a job offer.
“What a dumb broad!” my mother told me one day. She, as well as some of my female friends and colleagues, laughed at the idea that Jones believed Clinton would invite her to his hotel room at 11:00 p.m. wanting to conduct a job interview. Right-wing sycophants portrayed Jones as a naïve 20-something who didn’t know any better. James Carville, Clinton’s campaign manager, remarked, “Drag a $100 bill through a trailer camp and there’s no telling what you will find.”
When Clinton’s sexual tryst with Monica Lewinsky came to light, self-righteous conservatives actually tried to impeach him for lying about it under oath. But again, no word came from the feminist camp. In fact, they were suspiciously silent throughout the entire ordeal. Clinton supported abortion, so I guess that’s all some women’s rights activists cared about.
Personally, I always liked Bill Clinton (Hilary not so much) and didn’t appreciate the news media focused so much attention on his hormonally-driven conquests. Yes, he likes women. He’s also one of the smartest and most verbally eloquent men ever to serve as Chief Executive. What a stark contrast to his immediate successor or the buffoon currently in the White House! But, if character counts – as so many social and religious conservatives proclaim – why are sexual indiscretions more important than, say, financial irregularities? Conservatives were quick to defend Thomas and just as quick to defend Trump. But they championed the ousting of Clinton because he got a blow-job from some unknown overweight intern. Conversely, liberals were quick to defend Clinton, but had no problems dragging Thomas through the mud. Character may be important for public officials, but politics keeps interfering.
All of that came back – like another “Rocky” sequel – recently with the Kavanaugh ordeal. This situation is different, however, but much more disturbing. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward about her traumatizing encounter with Kavanaugh in the summer of 1982, when both were high school students. Whereas Clarence Thomas allegedly asked Anita Hill out on dates repeatedly and made one too many off-color jokes, Blasey Ford claims Kavanaugh and another teenage boy ambushed her at a house, dragged her into a bedroom and tried to rape her. If true, Blasey Ford is recounting an incident that goes far beyond mere uncouth behavior. It’s a harrowing tale of a felonious assault; one where she literally felt she could die at the age of 15.
I know first-hand what both sexual harassment and general bullying-type harassment on the job can do to a person’s sense of self-worth. I know it happens. I’ve experienced it from men AND women. In the fall of 1985, I was a naïve 21-year-old working at a country club when my openly gay male supervisor admitted to me one night that he’d “really like to suck your dick off.” It startled me more than it offended, but I didn’t know what to do. Working at a retail store just a few years later, I got into a verbal altercation with my immediate supervisor who threatened to “bounce me right out of here.” We eventually made amends, realizing it was just a bad misunderstanding.
While working at a large bank in downtown Dallas a few years after that, a woman came up behind me as I stood at a copier and literally jabbed a well-manicured fingernail into my back. We’d had an ongoing dispute about some otherwise small business matter.
“Oh please tell me you didn’t just poke me in the back like that!” I said to her.
She promptly jabbed me in the chest with that same finger and said something like, “I’ll stick it up your ass…”
Whereupon I literally shoved her back and told her never to touch me again. She marched out of the room and had someone call security on me. When I relayed what all had happened, attention turned back to her; she had merely said I’d “physically accosted” her in the copier room for “no good reason.” I informed management that, if I lost my job because of that, she’d “better come out with me” or the bank will buy me a new vehicle and give me an early retirement.
In 2006, while laboring as a contractor at a government agency elsewhere in downtown Dallas, a woman with the security division deliberately ran into me, as I and a male colleague started to enter through a secure doorway. I didn’t see her approach; she’d moved in on me that quick. She then grabbed my upper left arm and demanded to see my badge. When I told her (shouted at her) never to touch me again, she threatened to walk me out of the building. My immediate supervisor was more upset with me for talking back to her than the fact she’d literally attacked me. Again, I threatened legal action.
“I can be a real asshole about this,” I told him, “and tell everyone she hit me and tried punch and scratch me.”
My constituent vouched for the veracity of what happened. I suppose if he hadn’t been with me, I might have lost that job. But I had no fear of that. I would have ensured the same happened to her. But the matter quietly (amazingly) went away. Still, my supervisor and a few others seemed to be more upset that I’d actually had the nerve to talk back to a woman and not that she grabbed my arm.
I’m aware that, in this politically correct society, gender politics has taken an ugly turn. And it seems, whenever men are accused of sexual abuse and harassment of females, they are presumed guilty until proven innocent and the burden of proof lies with them. In other words, the standard protocol of due process is undermined. But only in those cases where a female – especially an adult White female – is victimized. Or claims to be have been victimized.
It was with all of that in mind that I viewed the life story scuffles between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. I compelled myself to view it all with an open mind and hear both sides of each tale. I noted that Anita Hill had been subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, but that Dr. Blasey Ford had written to her local congresswoman about a one-time incident with Kavanaugh five presidents ago. And, when the Senate asked Blasey Ford to testify under oath, she agreed (via her attorneys), but only after a long list of conditions were met.
Who is she, I asked myself. Why is JUST NOW coming forward with this? And how pertinent is it to Kavanugh’s confirmation? His judicial record opposing abortion and gay rights, while recklessly supporting large corporations is more critical.
Even after listening to Blasey Ford’s statement and all the vitriolic after-effects, I wondered where this would lead. Then I witnessed with some degree of amusement Kavanaugh literally lose it, as he tried to defend himself and rebut Blasey Ford’s claims. The once-stoic, almost bland, jurist melted into near hysteria. His loudly defensive behavior was telling. I’ve been around long enough to know that people who grow hostile in such a manner are most likely guilty of the accusations laid before them.
But then, I realized something even more important; something about Blasey Ford. She had stated repeatedly that, while her involuntary interaction with a teenage Kavanaugh was a “sexual assault,” it didn’t culminate (apparently) in an actual rape. Neither Kavanaugh nor his friend managed to penetrate any part of her body with some part of theirs. She credits much of that to the fact she fought so hard – terrified for her life – and that she had on a one-piece bathing suit, which would be more difficult to tear off.
Yet, if she had fabricated this entire story, or at least had embellished it, there would be no such ending. If the story was born from the mind of a bitter middle-age female, both boys would have penetrated her somehow or another. In fact, there probably would have been more assailants. She would have ended up bruised and bloodied; stumbling out of the house naked and screaming. But that’s not what she says happened. That’s what made me realize she can’t be lying about this.
It’s not that I doubted her altogether. I didn’t have an opinion either way about the alleged incident. I’ve become accustomed to seeing male public figures – politicians and sports stars alike – be targeted by supposedly scorned women. Almost every man who has entered public life (at least here in the U.S.) has fallen victim to a plethora of accusations from a gallery of victims. And, once again, understand that men accused of sexual violence in this country aren’t always accorded due process.
But now, I realize Blasey Ford can’t be lying. It’s still odd that she wrote to her local congresswoman about Kavanaugh just this past summer. Yet, I’m certainly glad she did. Now other stories about Kavanaugh are coming to light; stories of his alleged drunken binges in high school and college; of verbal slurs and physical attacks. The accusers are both women and men. It’s not that the men are more believable – at least not to me.
Kavanaugh had portrayed himself as a studious, virginal, choir boy-type puppy dog in his youth; a kid who volunteered to help old women cross the street and attended church as he was headed for the priesthood. He proclaimed as much before the Judiciary Committee. Under oath. In public. With his wife and daughters seated behind him. Now all of that’s in question.
If character really does count – and we know it does sometimes – then people like Kavanaugh don’t stand a chance. And it’s fair game to dredge up their past indiscretions the way archaeologists dredge up ancient coins.
Sadly, this fiasco is not quite over. It will continue into this coming week. Sometimes, true-life soap operas are just too overbearing. Stay tuned.
Supreme Court Historical Society
Image: Rob Rogers