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Thomas Hearings Lead Senators to Few Conclusions

Full Senate scheduled to vote tonight, but hearing provided them with 'no win' choice

AFTER a grueling weekend of highly charged testimony and cross-examination within the Senate's historic Russell caucus room, only one conclusion was certain: America will never be the same.Prof. Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas have ignited unprecedented, intense discussion in every corner of the country about how men and women relate to one another and about what constitutes sexual harassment. Racial politics, always lurking in the background of the Thomas confirmation process, has burst to the fore with Judge Thomas's allegation that Professor Hill is a pawn in a white-dominated liberal conspiracy to ruin him. And within the African-American community, male-female tensions have flared over the fact that a black woman has threatened to derail the brilliant career of a black man. In Congress, where the House is still chagrined over financial improprieties, the Senate is also groping to preserve its dignity amid charges it mishandled Hill's claim and allowed the confirmation process to spin out of control. The marathon weekend hearings were marked by breaches of the usual decorum between Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The question of who leaked to the news media the FBI report on Hill's charges - the event that triggered the unprecedented resumption of hearings - has also dogged the committee, one of whose members or aides is presumed to have committed the deed. But over the matter of most immediate concern - whom to believe, Thomas or Hill - the senators appeared no closer to revealing the truth than they did a week ago when they postponed their vote on Thomas until this evening. The testimony is so contradictory that there is no way Hill and Thomas are merely perceiving the same events differently. Hill claims Thomas harassed her with sexually explicit talk after she rebuffed his repeated efforts to date her. Thomas denies he ever even asked Hill, who worked for him both at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the early 1980s, for a date. "They are both credible, intelligent, well-educated, both lawyers, both testifying under oath, and one is lying," Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), a judiciary committee member, told reporters during a break in the proceedings. "There's no conclusion I could reach. Which one it is, I don't know." Lacking ironclad evidence to substantiate Hill's charge, many senators who supported Thomas before the allegations surfaced seemed prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, the only judiciary committee Democrat to support Thomas when the committee split 7 to 7 in its Sept. 27 vote, predicted most of the 13 Democrats in the full Senate who were prepared to vote yes before would still affirm Thomas. For the senators, it is a no-win choice. A vote for Thomas risks alienating female voters, who polls show are more inclined than men to believe Hill's allegations. But a vote against Thomas based solely on Hill's claims risks helping ruin a man's career over something that may never have happened. A weekend Washington Post-ABC poll showed that 46 percent of Americans surveyed found Thomas more believable than Hill; 24 percent believed the opposite. On Friday, Hill's opening statement - marked by explicit sexual discussion - appeared to do mor-tal damage to Thomas's pros-pects. Her sober accounting of alleged events, backed by her credentials as an up-by-the-bootstraps black professional like Thomas, appeared to leave committee Republicans little to work with. But over the long weekend, they managed to bring Thomas back from the brink by hammering away at weak spots in her story: the fact that she followed him to EEOC; the fact that she maintained regular, cordial contact with Thomas since she left EEOC; the fact that she said nothing publicly about any alleged harassment until now; published reports that she had thought she could scuttle Thomas's nomination by making her charges. The glaring weakness in Thomas's defense is a lack of convincing motive for Hill to make false allegations. Hill has much to lose if she is proved to be lying. Committee Republicans have tried to suggest that she was romantically interested in Thomas and is now seeking revenge for his lack of interest. Or, it has also been suggested, she felt a decline in status with Thomas when they both moved to EEOC and is getting back at him. Thomas's vehement denials that he was ever interested in Hill or sought to intimidate her through pornographic talk have been eloquent. He has likened the past two weeks, since the FBI first interviewed him about Hill's charges, to a "high-tech lynching." "I'd rather die than withdraw," he said passionately. "If they're going to kill me, they're going to kill me." Thomas stated with great anguish that no job was worth what he has been put through but that he would continue to battle the charges to clear his name. If Thomas is seated on the Supreme Court his name will be associated for years to come, foremost, with the sexual harassment allegations, not with any of the weighty matters of constitutional law he would adjudicate. If anything positive has come out of the Thomas-Hill fiasco it is the heightened awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. And if Judge Thomas gets his wish, reforms could mean that he will be the last Supreme Court nominee to undergo this sort of confirmation process.

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