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Déjà Vu All Over Again: Will We Discuss Pubic Hairs During the Kavanaugh Hearings?

The Voice’s 1991 coverage of Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill: From Shakespeare to that infamous Coke can


With Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh under scrutiny for alleged sexual misconduct, we revisit the Voice’s coverage of an earlier confirmation hearing, when Anita Hill accused another SCOTUS contender, Clarence Thomas, of harassment. In October 1991, Voice reporters, like many other citizens in the nation, gathered ’round their TV sets, riveted by the she said/he said/senators said back-and-forth of the hearings. George H.W. Bush had nominated Thomas to fill the seat on the Supreme Court vacated when civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement. Below are nine pages from the Voice’s wide-ranging reportage and cartooning.

James Ridgeway got at the heart of why Thomas was such a divisive choice, pointing out that as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Reagan, Thomas’s mission was to “gut the guidelines on sexual and racial discrimination set in place by Eleanor Holmes Norton during the Carter years.” In a discussion of the history of employment rights, Ridgeway also reminds us that “remedies for sexual harassment are available to all members of the American workforce — save for those employed on Capitol Hill, since Congress exempts its own workers from laws it passes to protect other American workers from discrimination, health and safety risks, and unfair labor practices.” Only very recently, has Congress, shamed by an increasing number of female members, begun to address this absurdity.

In an article illustrated with a great Steve Brodner drawing, Alisa Solomon points out that Thomas, once accused of sexual harassment, converted to positions he had never supported before: “After weeks of refusing to answer questions on pressing constitutional issues, Thomas, astonishingly, was echoing arguments for affirmative action, due process, and reproductive freedom. The man who opposed ‘hiring quotas’ was incensed to think that ‘black stereotypes’ could impede his ascendancy; the man who declared that he had ‘no philosophical difficulty with the death penalty’ was railing against the irreversible damage of unprovable charges; the man who couldn’t remember if he’d ever discussed Roe v. Wade was claiming the right to privacy as his most fundamental protection.”

Mim Udovitch sarcastically notes a trend that would come to even greater fruition during the 2016 presidential election: “The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings were not about politics, but about allegations of sexual harassment; the fact that these allegations were believable to most Democrats and beyond the pale to most Republicans was purely a matter of coincidence.”

Film critic Amy Taubin observes that a Republican senator’s misquoting of Shakespeare “was the kind of typecasting that earns Hollywood agents their six-figure fees.”

Greg Tate gets at the take-no-prisoners rhetoric that was unleashed during the hearings: “Anita Hill is either the Rosa Parks of sexual discrimination or she’s a lyin’-ass bitch with the mind of a lunatic.” Those ludicrous extremes seemed shocking coming out of the boob tube three decades ago; now they have the flavor of a presidential tweet. Tate’s barn burner of a column runs to ground any number of the myths that had come “flying out of the belfry during the Hill v. Thomas bedlam.”

Leslie Savan, who regularly covered the wild wild world of advertising, wonders what that infamous pubic hair will do to Coca-Cola sales. Will Pepsi benefit or suffer?

Michele Wallace points out that tales of abuse by black women had long been ignored by the dominant society — “The historical records go back to Harriet Jacobs and the early dismissal of her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” — while Mary Jo Neuberger extrapolates the viciousness of some of the senators’ questions to Hill.

Michael Tomasky delves into what happens when ideology is killed off: “While the liberals in the ’60s were for the most part busy toasting the consensus, the conservatives were still sending the ideological warriors on the road. So while Ed Muskie and Jimmy Carter were busy evolving into mushy moderate disasters, Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan, by God, were firing the cannons. They were, to say the least, effective. The political center moved to the right, at which point the conservatives stopped firing, quit calling their beliefs ‘ideology’ and started calling them ‘consensus,’ and that’s where we are today.”

And now, three decades on from when George H.W. Bush pushed a hypocritical ideologue onto the Supreme Court, it’s déjà vu all over again. So we’ll leave the last word to Mark Alan Stamaty, who fought absurdity with absurdity in his long-running Washingtoon.