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'A very unfriendly place': Comparing the Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh Senate hearings

The dramatic and emotional testimony heard Thursday at the U.S. Senate judiciary committee hearings drew comparisons to a similar setting on Oct. 11, 1991, when law professor Anita Hill testified before the committee that Judge Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her.

How the committee handled serious allegations from 2 women against powerful judges — made 27 years apart

University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill testifies in 1991 before the Senate judiciary committee on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. (Associated Press)

The dramatic and emotional testimony heard Thursday at the U.S. Senate judiciary committee drew comparisons to a similar hearing years ago, when another Supreme Court nominee was facing questions about alleged sexual misconduct.

On Oct. 11, 1991, law professor Anita Hill testified that Judge Clarence Thomas, who had been chosen by U.S. President George H.W. Bush to sit on the country's highest court, had sexually harassed her when he was her supervisor at two federal government agencies. Thomas, who also addressed the committee, emphatically denied the allegations. 

Twenty-seven years later, research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford would testify about how Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her and attempted to rape her at a party when they were teenagers in Maryland in the early 1980s. Kavanaugh, as well, would deny the allegations.

Both proceedings were media spectacles that captured the attention of the nation — in part, because both were seen by many as defining moments that revealed the nature of the power imbalance between men and women in American society.   

The Thomas hearing placed intense scrutiny not only on the accused and the accuser but on the subject of sexual harassment and the treatment of those who allege mistreatment. With Kavanaugh, the accusations come in the wake of the #MeToo movement, with many suggesting his confirmation would be a key indicator of whether much has changed for women since Hill testified in 1991.

Thomas would eventually get confirmed while Kavanaugh's fate remains uncertain.

Opening statements of Hill/Ford

Both Hill and Ford delivered opening statements that recounted their allegations in graphic detail.

After a brief introduction of herself, Hill told the committee that her experiences with Thomas and "telling the world about it" are "the two most difficult things, experiences" of her life.

Hill claimed that Thomas had repeatedly asked her out — requests she said she rejected — and that he would often discuss sex, including "acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes."

She said he referred to his penis size, and the "pleasures he had given to women with oral sex."

Watch: Anita Hill's opening statement.

"One of the oddest episodes I remember was an occasion in which Thomas was drinking a Coke in his office. He got up from the table, at which we were working, went over to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and asked, 'Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?'" 

On Thursday, Ford also discussed her reluctance to testify. She said she didn't want to be there, telling members: "I am terrified."

She also described, in detail, the alleged actions of Kavanaugh years ago at a house party. She said he pushed her onto a bed and got on top of her, and began running his hands over her body and "grinding" his hips into her.

"I yelled, hoping someone downstairs might hear me, and tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy. Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes."

"I believed he was going to rape me," she said.

She said when she tried to yell for help, Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth, and she feared he might accidentally kill her.

Watch: Christine Blasey Ford's opening statement.

Ford describes alleged assault, talks about being 'afraid and ashamed' 18:29

While Ford was composed during her questioning by the committee, her opening statement was emotionally raw and gripping, and she was often on the verge of tears. Hill, however, was much more matter of fact, less emotional, as she laid out her case against Thomas.

"Hill had a stronger testimony because she had a more accurate recollection," said Jeremy Mayer, associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.  "She wasn't talking about something 35 years ago when she was 15. She was talking about things that happened in her adult professional life less than 10 years before this year.

"And that made her more confident."

Questions for Hill/Ford

A stark difference between the two hearings is how Hill and Ford were questioned by the committee.

While Hill was questioned by an all-male panel over three days, Ford faced a committee that included four female Democratic senators and lasted for the better part of the morning.

Three senators participated in both the Thomas and Kavanaugh hearings: Republicans Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch and Democrat Patrick Leahy.

With Hill, Republican senators were at times quite aggressive in their questioning. She was asked to repeat some of the more graphic details of her testimony.

Arlen Specter, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, tried to chip away at her credibility, repeatedly asking Hill why she didn't share some of the details she included in her testimony during her interview with the FBI. 

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas denounces and denies sexual harassment allegations made by Anita Hill against him. (John Duricka/Associated Press)

But the Democrats on the committee could be just as tough.

For example, Sen. Howell Heflin asked Hill if she was a "scorned woman" or a "a zealot civil rights believer" who felt progress would be impeded with Thomas on the high bench.

"It was a very unfriendly place for her," Mayer said. "There were tough questions from the Democratic side to her as well."

Committee chair Joe Biden, a Democrat who later served as Barack Obama's vice-president, was criticized by some for his handling of the hearing, something for which he has since expressed regret.

Contrast that to the questioning of Ford yesterday. Concerned about the optics of having the all-male Republican members of the committee interrogate Ford, they brought in an outside female prosecutor, who spent little time going through all the details of the alleged assault.  And the Democrats, for the most part, spent their allotted time praising Ford's courage for coming forward.

Still, while trying not to impugn the integrity of Ford, Republicans said the accusations against Kavanaugh were in essence a smear campaign orchestrated by the Democrats.

Sen. Lindsey Graham called it an "unethical sham." He said Republicans who vote against Kavanaugh would be "legitimizing the most despicable thing" he's witnessed during his time in politics.

Opening statements of Thomas/Kavanaugh

In their opening statements, both Thomas and Kavanaugh were indignant, defiant and angry that they had been accused of such conduct.

Thomas spoke of his record of enforcing the rights of victims of sexual harassment and was categorical that he had never exhibited any of the behaviour Hill alleged. 

Senate judiciary committee chairman Sen. Joe Biden speaks at the end of hearings on Thomas's nomination in 1991. (Greg Gibson/Associated Press)

"I have been racking my brains, and eating my insides out trying to think of what I could have said or done to Anita Hill to lead her to allege that I was interested in her in more than a professional way, and that I talked with her about pornographic or X-rated films," he said.

"I have not said or done the things that Anita Hill has alleged."

Clarence Thomas responds to Anita Hill's allegations:

Thomas spoke about the pain inflicted on him and his family and friends. He said he had never "felt such hurt, such pain, such agony." 

"My family and I have been done a grave and irreparable injustice," he said.

He made another statement just before being questioned by the committee members in which he again denied all of Hill's allegations. He said the hearing was a "national disgrace" and that from his standpoint, it was "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks" who have different ideas.

Kavanaugh as well was highly critical of his proceedings, calling the confirmation process a "circus" and a "national disgrace" that had destroyed his family and good name.

Brett Kavanaugh makes his emotional opening statement:

Trump nominee defends his record, denies assaulting anyone 44:41

Whereas Thomas described the process as a "high-tech lynching," Kavanaugh said the committee had replaced advise and consent "with search and destroy."

But Kavanaugh was much more emotional than Thomas, displaying outbursts of anger followed quickly by tearful breakdowns when discussing his friends or describing the effect the process has had on his family and his children.

One of the most significant differences between Thomas and Kavanaugh was how partisan Kavanaugh was in his attacks, Mayer said.

Kavanaugh called the effort to ruin his reputation a "calculated and orchestrated political hit" that was "revenge on behalf of the Clintons," supported with "millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.

"Thomas is as much a Republican as Kavanaugh," Mayer said. "But he didn't call it an organized conspiracy. He didn't attack Democratic Party figures by name and lay the blame at their feet."

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.