Twenty-five years after Anita Hill testified before Congress that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, HBO’s new film, “Confirmation” has reopened old wounds over Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination hearings: Was Hill telling the truth when she claimed that Thomas, while her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, talked to her about his penis size and favorite porn and badgered her for dates? Or was Thomas the victim of a “high tech lynching,” as he memorably claimed?
“Confirmation’s” creative team—including Kerry Washington, who plays Anita Hill and also served as executive producer—contends they weren’t taking sides in the HBO film, which debuted on Saturday. But many conservatives who rallied around Thomas’ nomination see the film as unfair, leaving out all of the contradictions that, they say, raised questions about Hill’s credibility. Indeed, one of the top trending articles on The Wall Street Journal’s website Monday is an op-ed entitled, “The Hollywood Hit-Job on Justice Clarence Thomas.”
Fortune reached out to Jill Abramson, who quite literally wrote the book on the subject, or at least co-wrote it. Abramson and Jane Mayer, both then-fellow Wall Street Journal reporters, spent three years pouring over records and interviewing hundreds for their 1994 book, Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, which concluded “the truth in this matter favors her much more than was apparent at the time of the hearings.”
Abramson and Mayer were attacked by Thomas’ supporters when the book came out, but Strange Justice was nominated for a National Book Award, as it revealed evidence that corroborated pieces of Hill’s account.
So what does Abramson, a former executive editor of the New York Times who now teaches at Harvard University, think of the film and the legacy of the hearings?
What’s your reaction to “Confirmation”?
I reviewed the script for accuracy and did so without pay. I think the film is accurate. It portrays what I thought was the most memorable, and in some ways, awful parts of the hearing. Republicans set out to destroy this citizen and her credibility. There is something that always strikes me as awful when the full power of the U.S. government is turned on a private citizen, in this case, a law professor from Oklahoma.
The movie remains studiously neutral of who was telling truth. But Jane Mayer and I, in three years of reporting, found the weight of it proving Hill to be the truth teller. The reason we wrote the book was because we weren’t satisfied with the fact that all of the leaders at the time were saying that it was ‘he-said, she-said’, that you could never get to the truth. We found that wasn’t the case.
Vice President Joe Biden, then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is portrayed in the film as pliant and weak. Was he?
He was cowed by the Republicans. The decision not to hear from other witnesses (who were prepared to corroborate some of what Hill said) in some ways left Anita Hill very isolated. And the fact that Biden allowed Clarence Thomas to testify first and again that night gave him an advantage.
Does this episode of history really have any relevance today?
Yes, it has a lot of relevance. The legacy of the election was more women were voted into office—28 to Congress in 1992 and six to Senate. They called themselves the ‘Anita Hill’ class. Many of them are still in office. In some ways, those hearings were a national education on sexual harassment. A lot of people were not familiar with the term or what constituted sexual harassment. Lawmakers thought there had to be touching in order for it to be harassment, which is not the case. It’s unfortunate that sexual harassment continues to be a problem in this country.
Unfortunately with the polarization of the Congress, the attack machine is still employed in a strategic way by Republicans and Democrats. One of the unfortunate legacies is that Congressional hearings are even less of a fact-finding exercise. They’re political show trials much of time, used to try to destroy anyone hostile to their agenda.
Anything come to mind?
The Benghazi hearing. There was so much grandstanding, their purpose…was to drive down Hillary’s polls. I think in both cases, it was an abuse of the power of the lawmakers..[an attempt] to make villains out of the female witnesses.
In your column for the Guardian, you wrote that Washington “has rarely been a place that respected women’s words, or their authority.” Do you think these partisan attacks only happen to women?
Oh no. These hearings are supposed to be fact-finding efforts but they’ve become opposition wars. It happens to both genders because it’s become a partisan tool.
The interview was edited for clarity and space.