Former Vice President Joe Biden’s efforts to fend off criticism about his touchy, intimate style with women has renewed scrutiny of his leadership in 1991 when the Senate heard law professor Anita Hill’s sexual harassment claims against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
That episode could ultimately present more of a problem for Biden as he considers a 2020 presidential run. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, he has long had to defend himself against complaints that he did not take Hill’s allegations seriously and, after being pressured to hold a hearing on her claims, presided over a circus-like forum in which Hill was humiliated.
Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma and now at Brandeis University, alleged that Thomas harassed her with talk of pornography when she worked for him in the 1980s at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Education.
In Biden’s most recent statements on the episode, he described the senators who took Hill’s testimony as “a bunch of white guys … a committee that didn’t fully understand what the hell it was all about.”
“We knew a lot less about the extent of harassment back then, over 30 years ago,” Biden said last month in New York, adding of Hill, “she paid a terrible price. She was abused for the hearing. … Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could have done something.”
Yet Biden, as committee chairman, was no helpless bystander, and his actions at the time contrasted with others in his own category of “white guys.” As he continued to push for a Senate floor vote on Thomas immediately after the Hill charges leaked to the news media, Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan forcefully argued that the vote be postponed so her claims could be aired.
During a dramatic set of days in early October 1991, Moynihan helped prevent a scheduled Senate vote on Thomas before Hill had an opportunity to testify. (Moynihan, 15 years older than Biden, died in 2003.)
While senators such as Moynihan were astounded when Hill’s allegations burst forth in news reports, Biden’s reaction was initially muted. He said that when he and other committee members learned of Hill’s complaints — weeks before they become public — Judiciary Committee members did not believe the information “necessitated a delay in voting” by the panel or the full Senate.
As the details of Hill’s allegations hit the airwaves and newspapers, Biden argued against a postponement.
“I see no reason why the addition of public disclosure of the allegations — but no new information about the charges themselves — should change this decision,” he said on October 7, the day before a scheduled vote on Thomas.
Preparing for 2020
Scrutiny of the Senate handling of Hill has continually erupted over the years, as last fall when the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Christine Blasey Ford that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were both teenagers in suburban Maryland. (Kavanaugh and Thomas both categorically denied the respective assertions and were confirmed for the high court.)
The current flashback to 1991, however, is focused on Biden as he appears to be preparing for a presidential bid and as a handful of women, beginning with Lucy Flores, a former candidate for Nevada lieutenant governor, have publicly complained about Biden’s hug and kisses.
The 76-year-old former Delaware senator and vice president said in an initial statement: “In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.”
On Wednesday, Biden released a new video on Twitter, saying: “Social norms are changing. I understand that, and I’ve heard what these women are saying. … I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future.”
He followed that up at a labor union event on Friday, joking that he had permission to hug and touch certain individuals and then telling reporters more seriously, “I am not sorry for anything that I have ever done — I’ve never been disrespectful, intentionally, to a man or a woman. That’s not the reputation I’ve had since I was in high school, for God’s sake.”
Some commentators reflecting on Biden’s old-style pattern, especially as it conflicts with today’s #MeToo awareness, have argued that his record from the Thomas-Hill hearings is more troubling.
“Attitudes of race, gender and power have shifted since the Obama White House — we are more suspicious and less forgiving when it comes to accepting excuses and soft apologies for past racial biases and sexual misconduct,” Roxanne Jones, a former ESPN vice president, wrote in a CNN op-ed.
Gail Collins in The New York Times on Thursday referred to his “really nasty history on the Anita Hill matter,” adding that after Hill “had the courage to show up and testify before the world … Biden … did nothing but ask her embarrassing questions.”
During her testimony, Hill said, “Telling the world is the most difficult experience of my life.”
Two weeks in October 1991
No one would argue that 1991 was not a different era. Today, 25 of the 100 US senators are women. In 1991, there were only two female senators: Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski and Kansas Republican Nancy Kassebaum.
But individual senators responded with different levels of concern to Hill’s sexually charged allegations against her former boss who by 1991 had become a US appeals court judge, nominated by President George H.W. Bush to succeed retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Biden had learned details of Hill’s allegations by mid-September. He said at the time that Hill’s original request for confidentiality led him not to share her claims with the full Senate. During this September period, the FBI interviewed Hill and Thomas: she stuck with her accusations, and Thomas denied them.
Biden, who already opposed Thomas based on his record of conservatism, went ahead with a planned committee vote on September 27. The committee panel deadlocked on whether to endorse Thomas but voted overwhelmingly to send his name to the full Senate for a vote.
It did not take long for Hill’s allegations to leak, and on the weekend before the scheduled Tuesday, October 8 floor vote, Newsday and National Public Radio put out full accounts. Hill’s story generated immediate public concern and a flood of constituent calls to Senate offices. People were demanding that Hill’s allegations be investigated before the vote on Thomas.
Biden initially argued against a postponement. He changed his position as senators were increasingly overwhelmed by complaints from women on Capitol Hill and beyond, who adopted the “They just don’t get it” mantra.
Hill held her own news conference on October 7 in Oklahoma, compellingly laying out her claims and increasing the national curiosity not only in what might have transpired between employee and boss, but how the Senate was treating the controversy.
In one of the more attention-getting maneuvers on the morning of October 8, the day of the scheduled vote, Moynihan offered a motion that the Senate adjourn. It appeared the only way around a previous Senate agreement for a Thomas vote.
Moynihan implored his colleagues to find a way “out of this mess.” He said if he had known about Hill’s pending complaint, he would not have acquiesced — as all senators earlier had — to the scheduled floor vote.
Mikulski, who also urged a delay, said, “What disturbs me as much as the allegations themselves is that the Senate appears not to take the charge of sexual harassment seriously.” (Mikulski ended up voting against Thomas; the only other female senator, Kassebaum, voted for his confirmation.)
Moynihan’s adjournment effort failed, but it helped accelerate negotiations among then-Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, and Biden, both of whom realized the need for further hearings, and key Republicans.
The Thomas floor vote was postponed for a week, so the Senate Judiciary Committee could hear from Hill and Thomas. “This is not going to be an easy hearing,” Biden declared on October 8 when the deal was struck. “But it must be done.”
The dramatic hearing
During the nationally televised hearings that began on October 11, Republicans vigorously questioned Hill’s credibility.
They challenged her accounts of the events of a decade earlier and questioned her motives in speaking against Thomas. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah suggested Hill had fabricated her claims, in one instance, by drawing on details from the book “The Exorcist.”
Thomas responded by saying he had never harassed Hill but then took aim at the committee, calling its hearing “a travesty.”
“This is a circus. It is a national disgrace,” he continued. “And from my standpoint as a black American … it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.”
Republicans, as well as Democrats such as Biden, also asked Hill why she continued to work with Thomas at the EEOC after she believed she was earlier harassed when they worked the Department of Education.
Hill, who was in her mid-20s at the time of the incidents, said, “I needed the job.”
Biden, who struggled throughout to maintain control of the hearings, also elicited details of Hill’s claims. In one line of questioning that drew attention for its emphasis on humiliating elements of her story, Biden said, “Can you tell the committee what was the most embarrassing of all the incidents that you have alleged?”
She responded that it involved a discussion of pornography “involving these women with large breasts and engaged in a variety of sex with different people or animals.”
But Biden also drew out Hill’s independence from the many liberal groups that had been protesting Thomas’ nomination. “Do you consider yourself part of some organized effort to determine whether or not Clarence Thomas should or should not sit on the bench?”
“No,” Hill testified. “I had no intention of being here today, none at all.”
Biden declined to call as witnesses other women who had worked with Thomas and had come forward with similar assertions of harassment. The Senate confirmed him on October 15, by a 52-48 vote.
Over the years, Hill has criticized how she was treated. (She did not respond to recent requests from CNN for comment related to Biden.) Last September, during the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, she reiterated her view that senators had not taken her seriously in 1991, in an opinion piece for The New York Times.
Earlier, in a conversation with the Washington Post in November 2017, Hill referred to Biden’s comments expressing regret that she was “victimized” in 1991.
Responded Hill, according to the Washington Post account: “He said, ‘I am sorry if she felt she didn’t get a fair hearing.’ That’s sort of an ‘I’m sorry if you were offended.’ … I still don’t think it takes ownership of his role in what happened. And he also doesn’t understand that it wasn’t just that I felt it was not fair. It was that women were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee to show leadership on this issue on behalf of women’s equality. And they did just the opposite.”