A collage of photos of Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh

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Explain This

Rob Crandall / Shutterstock.com

Clarence Thomas Is Not a Cautionary Tale. He’s Kavanaugh’s Template

Anita Hill showed us nearly 30 years ago that women who make sexual harassment and assault allegations against powerful men are shamed and blamed. Post-#MeToo, will Dr. Christine Blasey Ford show us much the same?

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I’d been meaning to re-read Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas for a few years now. Jane Mayer (now at The New Yorker) and Jill Abramson (who was at the New York Times until 2014) set out, only a few months after the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings, to uncover the truth about Thomas, about Hill, about the Senate, about everything. When the hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States began a few weeks ago, it seemed as good a time as any to revisit the tale of Clarence Thomas.

For several days, I listened to the Kavanaugh hearings during the day and caught up on my Clarence Thomas reading at night. It created a weird sort of emotional vertigo, a double exposure. As I listened to Kavanaugh, I was reminded of the Clarence Thomas hearings prior to Hill’s appearance. Kavanaugh’s pugnacious behavior echoed Thomas’s combativeness and Kavanaugh joined in the absurd fiction perpetrated by Thomas that he, too, had never given one moment of thought to Roe v. Wade and couldn’t possibly say how he would rule. It made Strange Justice feel just a bit too on the nose—and that was even before the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh hit. The #MeToo movement has shined a light on the abuse perpetrated by powerful men, but it hasn’t eradicated it. We are about to see a repeat of what happened to Anita Hill. Then, as now, the female victim will be dismissed, harassed, and have her life altered forever. And then, as now, the powerful man will receive condolences and congratulations and will be confirmed to the highest court in the land.

Well before Anita Hill, Thomas’s nomination was rocky. Compared to previous Supreme Court nominees, he was painfully underqualified. Yes, he’d done yeoman’s work through the bulk of the 1980s as the conservative, quixotically anti–civil rights head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), but he’d only been a judge for 16 months (on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals) when he got the nod to ascend to the highest court in the land. In comparison to the titan he was replacing —Justice Thurgood Marshall—it was a laughably thin record. Even the American Bar Association, which has routinely rated many of Trump’s nominees to the bench as “well qualified,” struggled to give Thomas even a “qualified” rating.

To be fair, Kavanaugh is actually a much more qualified attorney and, credential-wise, more well-suited to the SCOTUS bench. He’s been on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for 12 years and overseen some quite notable cases. However, if you dig deeper, you see that, much like Thomas, his main qualification seems to be that he’s willing to drag the court much farther right. Indeed, it doesn’t even appear that Kavanaugh was one of President Trump’s top choices. He didn’t appear on the Federalist Society–approved list that Trump was waving around back in May 2016. But Kavanaugh is the judge who said that “we should not burden a sitting president with civil suits, criminal investigations, or criminal prosecutions.” That’s a huge boon for a president who is facing a collusion investigation, emoluments clause lawsuits, and is an unindicted co-conspirator in Michael Cohen’s criminal case.

Then there’s the whole matter of perjury. Even during the Anita Hill hearings, it was tough to believe Clarence Thomas wasn’t lying. But the Senate was so busy tarring Hill as a liar—Arlan Specter even accused her of flat-out perjury—that they didn’t pay all that much attention to Thomas’s dissemblings. And even the Democrats didn’t support her. There were four witnesses that then-Senator Joe Biden refused to call, even though they would have corroborated Hill’s story. Years later, another woman would come forward and say that Thomas had groped her in 1999, when he was already a sitting Supreme Court justice.

As the hearing on Brett Kavanaugh’s attempted sexual assault of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford hasn’t been held yet, we can’t say he’s perjured himself on that particular issue. However, Kavanaugh has already perjured himself a number of times. In fact, he perjured himself all the way back in 2004 and 2006 during his earlier confirmation hearings when he claimed he never received documents that had been stolen from the Democrats during a contentious fight over one of George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. He also downplayed his role in pushing some of Bush’s more controversial nominees, but emails released during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing show otherwise.

Off the stand, Kavanaugh is also just prone to weird puffery. After Trump nominated him, he lavished entirely absurd praise on the president, saying, “No president has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination.” Of course, there was no way for Kavanaugh to know that, and no real reason for him to say it, but it was positively, eerily Trumpian in nature.

So, up until September last week, the Kavanaugh hearing tracked the Thomas hearing in some key ways—a refusal to address major questions about how he would rule, a loose relationship with the truth, a nation riveted by the hearings—we weren’t yet seeing the most direct connection of all: Both Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh stand credibly accused of sexual misconduct, and arguably Kavanaugh’s is worse than Thomas’s.

Even prior to knowing the name of the accuser or the full scope of the allegations, Kavanaugh’s conservative supporters found 65 women who knew Kavanaugh in high school to say, without context, that Kavanaugh was an all-around great guy who would never have done anything wrong. The idea that 65 people who knew Kavanaugh 35 years ago could be assembled and given a reasonable time to assess and digest the accusations against Kavanaugh is absurd. Which is not to say that the letter was fake, or even that the letter had been ready to go prior to the accusations hitting the press. Instead, it’s more a testament to the blind faith of conservative women to follow conservative men. Interestingly, after the actual allegations were published and Dr. Ford came forward, those same women were far more reluctant to speak out, some going so far as to say they stood by him but didn’t want their names attached to that support.

And why would they? Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations are equal parts shocking and grim. Kavanaugh and a friend (since identified as right-wing writer Mark Judge) barred the door to a bedroom so that Kavanaugh could pin her to the bed, grope her, grind against her, attempt to remove her clothes, and put his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream.

Of course, Dr. Ford has now been accused of being a Democratic operative and an outright liar. Shades of Anita Hill, again. Hill faced allegations that her coming forward was orchestrated by liberal groups, and also had to endure David Brock’s famous assertion that she was “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Years later, Brock would recant entirely, and even admit to lying, but by then it was too late. Who among Kavanaugh’s greatest defenders will later admit they were lying?

Finally, both women were pilloried for waiting until what Republicans say is the “last minute,” as if there is some sort of external, objective timetable for confirmations. That knock on both Hill and Ford ignores the fact that it isn’t at all unlikely that a woman who had fiercely guarded her privacy and kept her secret would feel compelled to come forward once the man that harmed her was about to ascend to the highest court in the land.

Ford didn’t want to come forward initially. Now that she has, she has faced death threats, has had to move out of her house, and has hired private security. And people wonder why women don’t report they’ve been harassed or assaulted.

Back in 1991, Anita Hill’s accusations were not treated with the seriousness they deserved, but at least the FBI investigated those accusations prior to her taking the stand. In Ford’s case, the Republicans that control the Senate Judiciary Committee appear to be refusing to provide any such investigation. Ford’s detractors keep pointing to the fact that Kavanaugh has been the subject of many FBI background checks for previous positions. There’s no indication, however, that any of those background checks included asking Kavanaugh about those accusations. Additionally, refusing to investigate new claims because someone has been previously questioned is like saying that you’re not going to interrogate a criminal about a new crime because you talked to him about some old ones years ago.

Dr. Ford has indicated she might not attend a hearing if the FBI doesn’t investigate, and why should she? She’ll be vilified by Republicans and accused of having no support for her accusations, which is the exact sort of thing an investigation would turn up. Additionally, the Committee is refusing to call witnesses, including Mark Judge. Failing to interview the witness to Ford’s assault is an incredible dereliction of duty by the GOP. But it isn’t new—it’s just an echo of Biden’s similar refusal in 1991.

After Hill was vilified and Thomas confirmed, there was a spasm of support for women. The 1992 elections were even called “The Year of the Woman” as voters swept women into Congress at record rates. Twenty-six years later, though, women still make up less than 20 percent of the House of Representatives and only 23 percent of the Senate, and there’s not a single Republican woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee that conducted the Kavanaugh hearings.

It seems cynical, not to mention incredibly sad to say that there’s no reason to believe, even if and after Dr. Ford testifies, that Kavanaugh won’t be confirmed. The right wing’s desire to install someone to overturn Roe is likely just too strong. More, though, it is that many men still don’t, and won’t, believe women. Senator Orrin Hatch has gone so far as to say that even if the allegations are true, they don’t matter because Kavanaugh has led an exemplary life since then—as if the passage of time negates attempted rape.

We’re staring down the barrel of a Supreme Court where two of nine members stand credibly accused of sexual misconduct, and there’s no way we can have faith that court will treat women fairly. This time around, it feels even worse than it did in 1991, when women everywhere watched Thomas get confirmed. It feels worse because we were supposed to know better, we were supposed to be better, and this, just like Trump’s election, is a stark reminder that we’re not.


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