The Sunday Week in Review cover story by New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson, "Women On The Verge Of The Law," dealt with the just-concluded confirmation hearings of Obama Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, and how things have changed and not changed since the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, which also featured the grilling of a minority woman, Anita Hill.
At least that's Abramson's strange take on the hearings: linking Judge Sotomayor with Hill, the law professor and former Thomas employee who accused Thomas of sexual harassment at the hearings that riveted the nation. The story's subhead: "After Anita Hill, a few things in Congress changed. Not all."
Abramson's thrust is that the all-white male Senate Judiciary Committee mistreated Hill and failed to take her anti-Thomas accusations seriously. That should surprise no one, given Abramson's "Strange" history: She is coauthor, with liberal reporter Jane Meyer, of the 1994 book on the hearings, "Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas," written when Abramson and Meyer were reporters for the Wall Street Journal.
From Sunday's story:
A lone woman sits at the witness table, hoping her Yale law degree will help her survive a charged Supreme Court confirmation hearing. She faces a battery of powerful white senators on the Judiciary Committee, a contrast that cannot help but make her look like easy pickings.
That was the tableau inside the Senate Judiciary Committee back in 1991, when Anita Hill leveled her accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, who had been nominated for the Supreme Court by President George H. W. Bush. But the scene was repeated last week as Judge Sonia Sotomayor took her seat at the table. Although in this tableau she was the nominee and not the opposition witness -- and although there was little of the raw tension and none of the unhinged free-for-all that characterized the earlier proceedings -- there were unmistakable echoes.
Despite the nearly two decades that separated these women's Senate moments, Professor Hill and Judge Sotomayor are both from the generation of women who graduated from distinguished law schools in a second wave beginning in the late 1970s. It was a time when law firms, the government and even the judiciary were eager to add women and minorities to their staffs.
The two are linked in another way. Together, their experiences before the committee summarize a change in recent American politics. Professor Hill's treatment by an all-male Judiciary panel presaged an outcry of "They just don't get it!" and the election of many more women to the Congress. And the atmosphere of those earlier proceedings also insured a far tamer set of hearings this time, as neither Republicans nor Democrats have wanted to face the kind of damage inflicted by the partisan circus of 1991.
Inside the hearing room last week, a number of figures who played important roles in the Hill-Thomas confrontation were again present, although some in different parts. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a onetime chairman of the Judiciary Committee whose harshly prosecutorial questioning of Ms. Hill almost cost him re-election in 1992, was now on the Democratic side of the dais, looking a bit out of place. His suddenly junior status placed him next to the party's newest member, Al Franken. Mr. Specter, too, was having flashbacks.
"Professor Hill produced the year of women in the Senate," he recalled during a break. "That proceeding was a real lesson to me. I heard from so many women who saw themselves in her place, who felt their veracity was being questioned along with hers."
Another familiar face was Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, whose questions about pornographic movies, especially one with a character named Long Dong Silver, and suggestions that Ms. Hill had fabricated her testimony, helped ignite women's anger. Questioning Judge Sotomayor last week, Mr. Hatch was among the tamest of the Republicans.
If Abramson is blaming Hatch for talking about porn movies, she's being amazingly hypocritical, considering that in "Strange Justice" she lambasted the Democrats for not bringing up allegations that Thomas rented porn. As MRC president Brent Bozell wrote in November 1994:
Two women write a book with the thesis that the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Joe Biden, are pathetic cowards who failed to destroy the Thomas nomination, who failed to question Thomas on whether he rented the porno movie "The Adventures of Bad Mama Jama," who failed to suggest the White House broke federal laws in their advocacy of Thomas. Then the authors proclaim on television "we are not political people." Come again? The book and subsequent media tour quickly establish these strident ladies have a simple goal: the destruction of Justice Thomas.
Abramson is kinder to the Democrats, even crediting Sen. Joe Biden for trying to keep order, yet suggested they were insufficiently supportive of Hill. Abramson also credited Hill with ushering in the "year of the woman" (aka the "Anita Hill class") with women, almost all Democrats, winning House and Senate seats in 1992.
In 1991, there were no women on the Judiciary Committee; today there are just 2 among the 19 members. One of them is Dianne Feinstein, elected in 1992 as part of the so-called Anita Hill class, which brought a record number of women to the House (47) and Senate (6).
Abramson concluded with a cameo from the heroine of her tale:
Someone who is celebrating Judge Sotomayor's elevation to the Supreme Court without ambiguity is Anita Hill, who graduated from Yale Law one year after her and now teaches social policy, law and women's studies at Brandeis University. "As an experienced lawyer and jurist," Ms. Hill wrote on the first day of the hearings, "Judge Sotomayor is representative of a generation of hardworking and talented women lawyers."