TV and the Thomas Hearings
The first, unparalleled TV event of 1991 — the gulf war — was distinguished by the absence of what Orrin Hatch, during the second unparalleled TV event of 1991 — the Thomas confirmation hearings — kept referring to as “raw data.” As spectacle, the gulf war was completely controlled. Mediated by the administration, information was delivered by newspeople who abdicated their autonomy to become flacks and floor managers. The narrative was as simplistic as Top Gun, the images as diagrammatic as a corporate stockholders’ report. Among the reasons that the Hill/Thomas confrontation “played” so well is that it provided a chaotic, violent immediacy absent from the war coverage. Caught off guard, the TV people could do little more than set up their cameras and roll tape, while the White House was forced to improvise damage-control tactics that shifted daily.
It might be overkill to claim that the Hill/Thomas confrontation is the return of the repressed, but it certainly provided some libidinal compensation. Put it this way: How many of you would have watched another four-day TV marathon if you felt that once again it was being spoonfed from the top?
Different as the two debacles were, they had one striking element in common. Like game shows, talk shows, and sitcoms, they involved a dynamic even more basic to TV than the exploitation of violence and sex — that of humiliation. For Saddam Hussein, the price of remaining in power was to be publicly thrashed by George Bush and company. For Clarence Thomas, the price for his ascension to the Supreme Court was not a “high-tech lynching,” but something more like a symbolic castration.
To listen, as a friend remarked, to Hatch leading Thomas through a point-by-point denial of Anita Hill’s testimony — “No senator, I never …” talked dirty, read pornography, mentioned pubic hairs in Coke — was to hear the echo of “Yes, Massa, I’m a good boy. I keep my dick in my pocket.” It was the excruciating sound of a black man forced to deny his sexual identity in front of millions.
Indeed, the image of Thomas facing his 14 white male judges, rocking in his chair as if he were going to run amok any minute, suggests an answer to the oft-repeated question of why Hill — who remained to the last a reluctant witness — had not come forward sooner. As a black woman she would not have wanted to call that image into being, regardless of his aggression against her. Another explanation is that she suspected she’d be treated as abusively as we saw herbeing treated on the TV screen.
As a spectacle, the hearings were as hallucinatory as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The psychological terrors of sex and race were compounded by the fact that three kinds of events — a fact-finding hearing, a sexual harassment trial, and a TV show — were superimposed. The rules were up for grabs: Specter could decide to play the Queen of Hearts, shouting perjury, perjury, rather than “off with her head,” and no one knew how to stop it. That the Republicans prevailed amidst this craziness was the result of two principle factors. First, Hill had both institutionalized misogyny and institutionalized racism operating against her while Thomas suffered from only the latter. Second, in his dramatic closing speech, Chair Joe Biden ironically awarded Thomas the “benefit of the doubt” slogan that eventually got him over. Then again, Hatch, Simpson, and the behind-the-scenes White House knew a few things about TV that the Democrats didn’t: turn everything into a story, and tell it between 8 and 11 p.m.
It’s more than luck that Thomas had the advantage of appearing in prime time. And when his Friday evening grandstanding — claiming he hadn’t bothered to watch Hill’s testimony, exploiting race to divert attention from sexual harassment — got the equivalent of a “gee-whiz” from the Dems, the Repubs knew their script had been, as they say in L.A., green-lighted. (It was Senator Byrd in the prevote Senate debates, rather than anyone on the committee, who finally argued that Thomas’s refusal to watch Hill’s testimony betrayed a certain lack of ”judicial temperament.” Not to mention megalomania, considering Thomas also moaned that he had been “wracking his brains” to think of what he could have said to her. I guess if it wasn’t in his head, it didn’t count.)
Understanding that TV is nothing if not narrative, the Republicans got to work like hack writers from Troma Films, tossing out one high concept after another. Friday’s script — with Hill the dupe of a satanic, left-wing conspiracy — developed second-act problems when they couldn’t work her support for Bork into the story line. Saturday was the spurned woman scenario; with the mention of Fatal Attraction, 11 courtesy calls became proof of erotomania. By Sunday, the scorned woman had developed delusions — possibly to cancel any weight that Hill’s successful polygraph test might carry.
“Character is plot.” Perhaps the Dems had never heard this fundamental rule of screen writing. If they had, they would have realized that their script had more potential than the Republicans’. Thomas had a clear-cut motive for lying: He was an ambitious man who wanted to get on the Supreme Court. But no one on the committee had the guts to say that flat out.
The Republicans were also aware that, on TV, it matters not what you say but how many times you say it — the law of soundbites and commercials. The mystery of why she followed him from the Department of Education to EEOC was solved by Hill simply saying she thought the harassing behavior had stopped after the initial episode. No matter. “Why did she follow him?” was repeated again and again. (I gave up counting after 47.) Hatch did his Is-it-believable-that-anyone-asking-a-woman-for-a-date-would-talk-to-her-about-Long-Dong-Silver? routine almost as often. No one challenged it as a misleading question. He wouldn’t have talked dirty to her in order to get a date. He would have talked dirty to her after she refused him, as a way of proving that, even if she wouldn’t go to bed with him, he still had the power to fuck her over.
Despite the adept use of TV by the Repubs, there was something they didn’t anticipate and couldn’t co-opt — a runaway script. The eruption of women’s anger that surprised the establishment, derailing government “process” and network TV scheduling, was fueled by what happened at the hearing and by the outcome of the vote. Hill, as the catalyst for that anger, deserves our gratitude and admiration.
Women — not all women, but significant numbers of them — are furious, not only at the way Hill was abused, but also at the failure of the men on the tribunal to grasp that the personal is political. Thomas’s alleged invasion of Hill’s psyche — with words alone — is as political an action as the invasion of Iraq. The description of such an abuse of power isn’t dirt; it’s sexual politics. That’s what the men didn’t get.
The danger now is that the anger will be repressed, transformed once again into the kind of depression that’s characterized the women’s movement for over 10 years. Quicker than you can say “wham barn, thank you, ma’am,” the networks took up Thomas’s call for “healing.”
The night following the Senate vote, Ted Koppel hosted an expanded Nightline, an open forum on “A Process Run Amok.” Among those speaking from the audience was Nina Totenberg, who broke Hill’s story on NPR. Senator Simpson, who like many committee members mixed up the identities of Hill and Thomas, switching names and confusing titles with increasing frequency as the days wore on, here managed to call Nina, “Anita.” Thomas and Hill, by obstructing white male business as usual, had been fused into a single, irritating Other. Now Anita and Nina were united in Simpson’s mind as the new “bluestockings” — women who use their education to destroy men.
After an hour of challenges by black women, white women, and black men to a process that excludes them, Koppel handed the mike to two Reaganauts who suggested that in the future all this trouble could be avoided if the White House consulted with a few senators before announcing his nominations. Faced with such tunnel vision, women mustn’t lose sight of how much was accomplished in a short time. Not only was support for Thomas reduced but the Senate was forced to deal openly with something it never intended to get into.
The day of the vote, women crowded the steps of the Capitol chanting, “We’ll remember in November,” a dispassionate statement of fact. For senators who voted for Thomas it probably sounded unnecessarily vengeful. I myself prefer something with more bite. Vagina dentata, gentlemen? ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 26, 2020