MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
Now we turn to a story that gripped the nation 19 years ago, when confirmation hearings were underway for then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. A woman who had worked for him at both the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said he used inappropriate and sexually charged language with her and made advances that were unwelcome. Her name was Anita Hill, and her testimony sparked intense debate about a term that was new to many Americans: sexual harassment. The allegations threw the hearings into a tailspin, leading Thomas to describe it all like this.
Justice CLARENCE THOMAS (U.S. Supreme Court): 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.
MARTIN: Eleven days ago, Justice Thomas' wife, Virginia Thomas, called Anita Hill at her office at Brandeis University, where she's a law professor, and asked her to apologize. Professor Hill told the New York Times she initially thought the call was a prank and turned the voicemail over to campus authorities, who contacted the FBI. Ms. Thomas has confirmed to the New York Times that she indeed did make that call.
We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Harvard University law Professor Charles Ogletree. He represented Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas. Also with us, Dahlia Lithwick, senior legal correspondent for Slate.com.
I welcome you both, and I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Law, Harvard University): Hi, Michel.
Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Legal Correspondent, Slate.com): Thank you.
MARTIN: Professor Ogletree, what was your reaction when you heard this?
Prof. OGLETREE: Shock. It's 19 years almost to the day this terrible event happened in Washington. And, you know, it's been a living nightmare for Professor Anita Hill. You know, she has turned her life around, written a couple of books, teaching here at Brandeis, minding her own business. And to get this sort of call out of the blue is just beyond imagination.
When she called and told me that she'd received it, I thought it had to be a prank and advised her not to do anything other than to have it examined by the authorities. But it's a complete shock, Michel. There's no way to explain it as a thoughtful, rational step by anyone to take.
MARTIN: And we'll mention that we reached out to Professor Hill, and she - her office issued this statement on her behalf, saying: I certainly thought the call was inappropriate. I have no intention of apologizing because I testified truthfully about my experience, and I stand by that testimony.
So, Dahlia Lithwick, what is your response? And I'm also curious, because you've covered the Supreme Court, about whether there is any - can you think of another example where the spouse of a Supreme Court justice took some - a public action in this way?
Ms. LITHWICK: No. Michel, this is an unprecedented wife. I mean, interestingly, if you read, there's a wonderful new biography of Justice Brennan that's just come out by Seth Stern and Steve Wermiel. And one of the things that's fascinating is how the wife of the Supreme Court justice was historically shunt to the side, you know, they took pictures of her and her window treatments. Justice Brennan's wife slowly, apparently, drank herself to death, never commented on anything.
So, you know, you had this historic role of wives as sort of potted plants who were sort of the help meat who never spoke. And we have no precedent for Ginni Thomas, who has her own Tea Party group, who's raising funds for Tea Party groups, who's out there giving barn-storming speeches to Tea Party members. We have no template for what to do with this. This is not what Supreme Court wives do. Whether that's good or bad is one question. But whether she somehow has crossed a line is another.
MARTIN: Do you think she's crossed a line? Do you feel uncomfortable hazarding an opinion about that at this point?
Ms. LITHWICK: You know, I think this is not new. I mean, when Clarence Thomas' autobiography came out three years ago, he did the same thing they're doing now. You know, he vilified her. He said that she was treacherous.
MARTIN: Anita Hill. He vilified Anita Hill. OK.
Ms. LITHWICK: Anita Hill. Yeah. No, he was very critical of her. He sort of decried her false religious demeanor. It was a very, very blistering personal attack, and at the time Ginni Thomas said she needs to apologize. So this is, for some reason, a fight that the Thomas' want to continue re-litigating with a very, very unwilling and reluctant Anita Hill.
MARTIN: Just to add additional context here, Virginia Thomas is a long-time conservative activist. I believe she's a former lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce. And now she's founded a new non-profit group called Liberty Central, which opposes what she has characterized as the leftist tyranny of the Obama administration. And she was a keynote speaker earlier this month, for example, in Richmond, Virginia at a state convention, which was a large sort of Tea Party gathering.
Just to clarify, Professor Ogletree, just to take people back to the history, did Anita Hill willingly appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee?
Prof. OGLETREE: Well, with great reluctance, Michel. Anita didn't want to appear. She didn't want to be a part of this. And she was asked to come and testify.
MARTIN: She was under federal subpoena, was she not?
Prof. OGLETREE: She was.
MARTIN: A congressional subpoena.
Prof. OGLETREE: Yes. She was asked - the chairman at that time of the Judiciary Committee was then-Senator Biden, who's now vice president. And it was, as you may recall, a very hostile experience for her with some of the things said by some of the members of the Senate. And she was, in a sense, urged to leave her tenured post at the University of Oklahoma Law School, where she had been a phenomenal teacher and raised a lot of money for a chair that would be in her name.
And so - and think about it. She's gotten on with her life and moved on. It's behind her. So this is just an event that won't go away. And I'm glad that we have confirmed that it was Ms. Thomas who actually called, confirmed that that was her actual voice, those were actual words, because it seems to me that the conversation needs to occur between the Thomases, not between Anita Hill and Ms. Thomas.
MARTIN: But Professor Ogletree, too, the truth or falsity of Anita Hill's comments, it's my understanding and recollection that you at your - that she took a polygraph at your direction.
Prof. OGLETREE: Absolutely.
MARTIN: And what were the results of that polygraph?
Prof. OGLETREE: Results was that she was not fabricating in any way and that she was being truthful. And that's what set the Senate off because, you know, she took a polygraph. Then judge and now Justice Thomas did not take one. There was never any reluctance about her telling her story. And I was nervous. I'm the lawyer saying, you know, I didn't know Anita Hill. And to ask someone to take a polygraph is a major thing, but she said she was willing to do it. And I thought that was pretty encouraging, in a sense. And the results sort of, in a sense, came from a - one of the guys who helped start the FBI's polygraph examination, Paul Minor, you know, a really exceptional and talented expert.
MARTIN: So you have no doubt about the truthfulness of her testimony that day and subsequently.
Prof. OGLETREE: None, none at all. And, in fact, what's amazing, Michel, and -it's worth thinking about doing it - and Dahlia knows this, as well - a number of the people who, for one reason or another, did not testify in 1991, have appeared and explained that they were not called, were not reached out to, et cetera.
And we don't need to re-litigate this, but the reality is that, you know, evidence did come forward after the hearing. And I think that tells us - and, in fact, the public's point of view changed. There was a sense that people believed Thomas back in '91. And then as time went on and they began to look more closely, the polls told a different story of who do you believe, Anita Hill or Clarence Thomas?
MARTIN: And Dahlia, a question to you in the minute and a half that we have left here: In the years since then, what has been Justice Thomas' demeanor, role on the court? I mean, he's known clearly as a very strong, conservative voice, that he generally votes along with, sort of, Justice Antonin Scalia. But what has been his sort of demeanor on the court? And you mentioned his memoir a couple of years ago or just a year or so ago. What has he said in subsequent years about this whole episode?
Ms. LITHWICK: Well, it's interesting. I mean, he's - in private, people will tell you, if you ask any clerk at the Supreme Court that he is the most warm, gregarious, kind man. I mean, I think as a personal matter, he's incredibly friendly. But his public demeanor - I mean, he has not spoken a word at oral argument in years now. He has gone out of his way to convey the message that he doesn't like this public persona. And the book was just a bitter, bitter recounting of slights and wrongs and misapprehension by the world and, literally, an enemies list of anyone who's ever made him feel belittled. So I think he's a very complicated man. I think she's a very complicated woman.
MARTIN: Who's she? She, in this instance, is who?
Ms. LITHWICK: His wife. And I think that he's really locked into a worldview in which he was the victim of a terrible, terrible tragic smearing. And more poignantly, I don't think he can get over it. I think he is as angry today, if not angrier, than he was 19 years ago.
MARTIN: Dahlia Lithwick is senior legal correspondent for Slate.com. She was with us from her office. Also with us from his office, Harvard University Law Professor Charles Ogletree. He represented Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas. And if you would like to read the statements that we have from both Miss Thomas and from Professor Anita Hill, we'll post those on our website. Just go to the program page at TellMeMore.com, at NPR.org. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Prof. OGLETREE: Thank you.
Ms. LITHWICK: Thank you, Michel.
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