Commentary

Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. By Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson. Houghton Mifflin. 406 pp. $24.95.

The media blitz that accompanied the publication of Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, by Wall Street Journal reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, ought to be studied and analyzed by publicists much as the campaigns of Hannibal, Nelson, and Rommel are studied by military tacticians. Now here was a brilliant public-relations barrage: a massive excerpt in the Wall Street Journal; an hour-long edition of ABC’s Turning Point devoted to the book, with Ted Koppel’s Nightline and Larry King Live in tow; a volley of morning shows; articles landing everywhere from Newsweek to Mirabella; and even a National Book Award nomination announced in a feat without precedent in the annals of history before the tightly-held volume was in the hands of anyone but the publishers and the competition’s judges.

This tally is hardly exhaustive, merely illustrative. Strange Justice clearly struck a chord that set virtually the entire American media culture humming in sympathetic vibration.

There are two reasons why. First, following the epic clash in late 1991 between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill over her allegations of sexual harassment, Thomas may have been elevated to the high post of Supreme Court Justice, but Hill was elevated to an even higher station: that of a consummate heroine of modern-day feminism a self-declared victim of sexual predation of the most insidious kind, and therefore a blue-suited icon of everywoman. It is hardly surprising that burnishing Hill’s reputation has become a media subspecialty all its own.

The second reason for the standing ovation for Strange Justice is David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill (1993), which pointed to falsehoods and numerous inconsistencies in the tale told by Hill and her panel of “corroborating witnesses,” and concluded that Hill’s charges were unsubstantiated at best. While Brock was attacked even vilified by many critics as someone promoting a right-wing political agenda (and not least by Mayer and Abramson themselves, in a savage review in the New Yorker), The Real Anita Hill became a best-seller, earning warm praise along the way from a number of reviewers in mainline publications who were clearly not combatants in Thomas’s camp. Strange Justice is the heaviest weapon rolled out to date in the effort to neutralize a book that has been a calamity for the hagiographers of Hill.

Mayer and Abramson owe Brock a minor, but not insignificant, debt wholly apart from the occasion he provided them to write a book of their own. Ever since the Senate hearings, Anita Hill had maintained a near-complete silence on the subject of her allegations, but after Brock’s book appeared she agreed to grant the authors of Strange Justice an exclusive interview to answer its charges. Strange Justice thus begins breathlessly in a hotel room with curtains drawn, Hill at last offering reflections on her terrible ordeal.

But the breathlessness with which the authors present this scoop amounts to little more than an exercise in bait-and-switch. For Hill has little to say. Instead, she is flanked by two lawyers; she has insisted that they screen the topics of the discussion in advance; and she has exacted a promise from the authors that prior to publication they will clear all quotations attributed to her.

Mayer and Abramson write: “Without a doubt, these were rules of engagement set by a woman who felt bitter, embattled, distrustful, and deeply weary of the fight.” Without a doubt? Would these not also be the natural “rules of engagement” of someone with a great deal to hide? Mayer and Abramson do not think so. In fact, if Hill has ever said anything regarding Clarence Thomas or any other subject about which Mayer and Abramson harbor a faint suspicion or a lingering doubt, it goes unmentioned in Strange Justice.

What does get mentioned is every dirty story anybody has to tell about or against Clarence Thomas some old, some new, some borrowed, all blue. Mayer and Abramson rehearse, for example, the well-worn saga of Angela Wright, the “other woman” who accused Thomas of making comments about her anatomy and worse! asking her for dates. But Wright, as everyone knows by now, would have been a witness whose credibility could be easily knocked down. At the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Thomas had fired Wright. She had left another job one step ahead of the ax, leaving behind a note denouncing her boss for racism. And she had previously been fired by a Democratic Congressman. Yet, in the alternate universe that Mayer and Abramson construct, if only Wright had been heard, Thomas would have been sunk. Why, even Senators who opposed Thomas can be found to say so!

Strange Justice is full of such stuff. Thus, reporting on Thomas’s purported taste for pornography, Mayer and Abramson have found a couple of people, including a video-store proprietor, who claim to have seen Thomas renting dirty pictures as recently as 1989. But the Washington Post unleashed its famous investigative reporters on this seedy story at the time of the hearings. The material they came up with was deemed unnewsworthy by Post editors, according to Mayer’s and Abramson’s own account, and it never saw print. Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio hardly a partisan of Thomas also chased the movie-rental story. The store in question, she later noted in a speech, did not maintain records of who rented what; lacking further verifiable evidence, she let that aspect of her inquiry die.

Strange Justice presents no damning new facts or records. The only thing new, it seems, is its standard for what constitutes proof. According to the rules of journalism that Abramson and Mayer employ, when facts fail to paint the desired picture, gossip more than suffices for filling in the blanks.

Exaggeration is another technique to which Mayer and Abramson fruitfully resort, but this can be a risky device for journalists to employ, especially if they get caught in the act. For example, Mayer and Abramson report that Thomas’s apartment was “papered with centerfolds of large-breasted nude women” and a “compulsively organized stack of Playboy magazines.” This information, they say, comes from Kaye Savage, a Thomas aide who worked at the EEOC contemporaneously with Hill. Yet, unhappily for the credibility of Strange Justice, Savage also granted an interview to Turning Point for its hour-long special. In it she described an apartment with a galley kitchen which displayed a single Playboy centerfold on the far wall shocking!, but a far cry from the sinner’s den plastered with smut that appears in Mayer’s and Abramson’s account.

In short, though they pose as impartial and disinterested journalists (and have been taken as such by critics who dismiss Brock as a biased ideologue), Mayer and Abramson repeatedly show far more interest in hurling dirt on Thomas than in considering the possibility that Hill suffers from occasional difficulties in telling the truth. The most glaring instance of this failure pertains to two additional Hill corroborators whom Mayer and Abramson have discovered.

Hill originally claimed, in interviews with Senate staffers and the FBI, that the one and only person whom she had told about Thomas’s harassment was Susan Hoerchner, an administrative law judge from California who became her principal corroborator at the Senate hearings. At these very hearings, however, three other witnesses came forward to testify that Hill had told them about her woes with Thomas. Now, in Strange Justice, we meet a fifth and a sixth corroborator. The fifth is one Bradley Mims, who claims to have discussed Thomas’s behavior at great length with Hill. Yet Hill, as Mayer and Abramson concede, was unable to recall Mims’s first name when reminded of him. They eagerly accept her explanation for forgetting about Mims, as well as her initial failure to give the names of the three corroborators besides Hoerchner who testified: the painful memories were “repressed.”

In the case of the sixth corroborator, we have a “repressed” memory that is truly strange. Although Mayer and Abramson evidently do not realize it, they have stumbled upon a significant revelation. They have obtained the notes taken by a Senate staffer, James Brudney, during his initial conversation with Hill on September 10, 1991–weeks before Hill agreed to be interviewed by the FBI, and still longer before her charges became public. These notes reveal that Hill told Brudney about yet another person to whom she had explained the allegedly real reason she left the EEOC. That person was Linda Lambert, a former colleague there.

According to Brudney’s notes, Hill said that Lambert did not believe her story about Thomas Lambert thought him incapable of such behavior. But what Lambert thought of the story does not matter; the point is that, according to Hill, Lambert could indeed corroborate that Hill complained about Thomas.

Thus, the chronology of events now reveals that after telling Brudney about two sources of corroboration, Hill went on to tell both another Senate staffer and the FBI that Hoerchner was the only one. Why, apparently with the knowledge of Brudney, did she change her story? This is terra incognita to Mayer and Abramson, and, as usual, they do not boldly venture forth to explore it.

Lambert has yet to be heard from about the purported encounter. But we did hear from her at the confirmation hearings. There, she testified under oath as a character witness for Thomas. Not one of the Democratic Senators asked her what would clearly have been a nuclear-tipped question, and one that lay armed and targeted in the notes of their staffer, James Brudney, who was himself dedicated to derailing Thomas’s confirmation: “Did Miss Hill in fact tell you about her problems with Clarence Thomas shortly after she left the EEOC?” If the conversation between Hill and Lambert had actually taken place as described, the damage to Thomas from hearing Lambert answer in the affirmative would have been immense and irreparable.

Anita Hill’s own “repressed”-memory defense for her failure to name more of the persons to whom she told her tale is now impossible to accept. The alleged Hill-Lambert conversation was not repressed, it was suppressed, by Hill and Brudney, for reasons we can only surmise.

This is only one of many instances in which Mayer and Abramson out of ideological animus, incompetence, or both fail to follow the facts and thereby avoid asking questions or drawing conclusions that would undermine their case against Thomas. Instead, their inquiry repeatedly comes to an abrupt halt whenever Anita Hill’s credibility teeters precariously on the edge.

“Strange justice” indeed: a book purporting to exonerate Anita Hill and condemn Clarence Thomas ends up, despite the fanfare of Hill partisans, to be the second major work that inadvertently in this case lends credence to his account by calling hers into question.