The Senate Judiciary Committee finds itself in politically treacherous territory — a heated Supreme Court confirmation battle with an allegation of sexual assault, ahead of an election shaping up to be a reckoning for female candidates up and down the ballot.
Not since the fall of 1991 has this committee faced such a quandary, when Clarence Thomas’s confirmation turned into a political and societal Rorschach test for what constituted sexual harassment. So much has changed, yet so little has changed.
Just three of the current 21 members of the committee were on hand for those hearings. Just one 24-hour cable news outlet existed to cover the hearings, unlike the handful or more that have been following Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination. Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, was 14 years old. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was 7.
These next few weeks could be perilous for members of the Judiciary Committee — the panel will hear from Kavanaugh again next Monday and has invited Christine Blasey Ford to appear. In an interview with The Washington Post, Ford alleged that, when they were both teenagers in the Bethesda area, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed and groped her.
The allegation landed just a few days before the committee planned to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, which would have then been sent to the full Senate with the expectation of final confirmation by the end of the month.
The timing could not be more eerie.
Thomas was going through a tough confirmation process but seemed certain for confirmation. His nomination faced many racial overtones — he became just the second black Supreme Court justice but is a staunch conservative. He replaced a liberal icon, Thurgood Marshall, who made history by winning the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case and then becoming the first black justice.
Then Nina Totenberg of NPR broke the story that the committee had reviewed and essentially dismissed allegations that Thomas had sexually harassed one of his employees, Anita Hill, when he ran the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Led by a future senator, Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), House Democratic women marched to the Senate side to demand a full airing. The subsequent hearings blew back in the committee’s face, turning the senators into a national embarrassment.
Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D-Ill.), a veteran incumbent, lost his primary the next year to Carol Moseley Braun, who became the first African American woman elected to the Senate. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), then a Republican, barely survived what was supposed to be an easy reelection.
And crystallizing the “Year of the Woman,” Boxer and Dianne Feinstein (D) made history with their victories, making California the first state to elect two women to the Senate.
One longtime Democratic adviser suggested Monday to skip the usual task of senators asking questions and instead let legal counsel question Ford at a public hearing, to avoid the type of grandstanding that was lampooned in an infamous 1991 “Saturday Night Live” skit of the Thomas hearings.
“Here’s some advice, based on the Thomas-Hill experience: Both Dems and GOP should want professional, outside counsel to question Kavanaugh and Ford at a public hearing — not Senators. Make this a search for the truth, not a political platform,” Ronald Klain, a senior aide for the Democrats in 1991, tweeted Monday.
More than 25 years later, the committee’s then-chairman, Joe Biden (D-Del.), still grapples with questions about how he handled the matter. “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” he said in a December interview with Teen Vogue. “I owe her an apology.”
Now, in a twist of fate, Feinstein finds herself in Biden’s position. Feinstein is the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and, as Feinstein received the letter from Ford, a Californian, months ago alleging the attempted sexual assault.
Ford, both with Feinstein’s staff and in her initial discussions with The Washington Post, requested to keep the matter private. So for weeks Feinstein sat on the allegation, unable to question Kavanaugh about the allegation or inform her colleagues about the case.
Rumors swirled and last week she gave in to her junior Democratic colleagues and showed them the letter, then forwarded it to the FBI — but with Ford’s name redacted, only to have The Post report land Sunday.
This has left Feinstein, 85, drawing fire from both sides. “Senator Feinstein . . . has had this information for many weeks and deprived her colleagues of the information necessary to do our jobs,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the committee, said Monday.
“What we have here is a failure of leadership,” Kevin de León (D-Calif.), a state senator, said Friday. He is challenging Feinstein from the left in the general election, having finished a distant second in the June primary ahead of every Republican.
She remains favored to win her race, but these next few days could become a defining moment of a long career for Feinstein — and for Grassley and others.
Ask the wrong questions, with the wrong tone, they will look insensitive. Go too soft, they will look as if they are not taking the charges seriously enough. Each mistake will be amplified by nonstop coverage from TV stations and social media platforms that didn’t exist in October 1991.
That’s when Biden recalled Thomas to testify on a Friday morning, followed by Hill, then a law professor. Specter, a former prosecutor, cross-examined Hill as if she were a hostile witness — and when he died in 2012, Specter’s handling of Hill featured prominently in his obituaries.
Thomas denounced the process as a “high-tech lynching.”
A few weeks later, after a 7-to-7 vote in the committee, Thomas won confirmation on a 52-to-48 vote. In a sign of the different political times, 11 Democrats supported him.
Last fall, Hill and her supporters gathered at The Post for an oral history about the entire ordeal. She hoped her experience at least had one benefit.
“Things have evolved,” she said last year. “I’ve heard from thousands of women, and some of them tell me very good stories about what has changed.”