WASHINGTON: Joe Biden knew Anita Hill was going to be an issue for him. So a few weeks ago, as he prepared for his presidential announcement, he reached out to her through an intermediary and arranged a telephone call, hoping to assuage her.
It did not go how he had hoped.
On Thursday, the first day of his presidential campaign, the Biden camp disclosed the call, saying the former vice president had shared with Hill “his regret for what she endured” 28 years ago, when, as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he presided over the confirmation hearings in which she accused Clarence Thomas, President George Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court, of sexual harassment.
But Hill says the call from Biden left her feeling deeply unsatisfied.
In a lengthy telephone interview Wednesday, she declined to characterise Biden’s words to her as an apology and said she was not convinced that he has taken full responsibility for his conduct at the hearings — and for the harm he caused other victims of sexual harassment and gender violence.
She said she views Biden as having “set the stage” for last year’s confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who, like Thomas, was elevated to the court despite accusations against him that he had acted inappropriately toward women. And, she added, she is troubled by the recent accounts of women who say Biden touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.
Thomas’ confirmation hearings in October 1991 riveted the nation, serving up a volatile mix of race and gender on national television. Hill was the reluctant witness, a young African-American lawyer who had worked with Thomas and was grilled in excruciatingly graphic detail by an all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee led by Biden, then a senator from Delaware.
“I cannot be satisfied by simply saying, ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you,’ “ said Hill, now a professor of social policy at Brandeis University. “I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose.”
Hill said she does not find Biden’s conduct disqualifying. “I’m really open to people changing,” she said.
But, she added, she cannot support Biden for president until he takes full responsibility for his conduct, including his failure to call other women who were willing to testify before the Judiciary Committee as corroborating witnesses. By leaving them out, she said, he created a “he said, she said” situation that did not have to exist.
“The focus on apology to me is one thing,” Hill said. “But he needs to give an apology to the other women and to the American public because we know now how deeply disappointed Americans around the country were about what they saw. And not just women. There are women and men now who have just really lost confidence in our government to respond to the problem of gender violence.”
The Biden campaign said Thursday it would have no comment on Hill’s reaction to the call from Biden beyond its initial statement. “They had a private discussion where he shared with her directly his regret for what she endured and his admiration for everything she has done to change the culture around sexual harassment in this country,” said the deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield.
Biden’s disclosure, and Hill’s interview, underscore the former vice president’s potential vulnerability from an event that is nearly three decades old, but that has new resonance in the #MeToo era and the aftermath of last year’s Kavanaugh hearings. That it erupted so quickly, with his campaign only hours old, suggests that Biden’s treatment of Hill will echo throughout his campaign unless he can find a way to convincingly put it to rest.
With Biden almost an instant front-runner in a very crowded Democratic field, the subject of Anita Hill is a delicate one among Democrats — even those who believe Biden bungled the hearings. Many former Judiciary Committee aides and other people who participated did not want to talk on the record because they feared that scrutiny of Biden’s past conduct would undermine the campaign of the candidate some think could be best positioned to defeat President Donald Trump, whose treatment of women is a huge issue for Democrats.
“It’s definitely going to come up,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said in an interview this week. “I don’t know how exactly he is going to handle it, but there will be scrutiny of the Anita Hill issue which I think resonates in a different way today. So he has to be able to respond to it in the context now of the #MeToo movement.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., was even more pointed. “Biden’s chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee during the Thomas nomination reflected his sense of institutionalism a lot more than any sense of feminism. None of this would be disqualifying, but it does not stand up well to the feminist sensibilities of the #MeToo era.”
Some of Biden’s former colleagues who served with him said that while he might have erred in the Thomas hearings, his full record needs to be considered rather than only one element of a lengthy career in politics.
“I think anybody who has been in public life for as long as he was in public life and has gone through changing times is going to have to respond to those moments in history when they wish they had done it a little differently,” said Barbara Boxer, a former Democratic senator from California. “I think Joe has evolved on all the issues that are going to come up, among them the Anita Hill hearings.”
She and other Democrats also say Biden’s resume and experience make him one of the party’s strongest contenders to unseat Trump. They said the totality of Biden’s work in the Senate and as chairman of the committee needs to be given its due for his handling of multiple confirmations and the passage of the Violence Against Women Act.
“There is a lot more to talk about in Joe’s tenure on the Judiciary Committee,” said Christopher J. Dodd, a longtime Senate colleague of Biden’s from Connecticut.
Biden’s statement Thursday was the second time in a month that he has addressed the Thomas-Hill hearings. In an emotional speech in March, he said of Hill, “To this day, I regret I couldn’t give her the kind of hearing she deserved.”
Allies of Biden’s had long been aware he needed to take steps to ease the tension over the Thomas hearings if Biden ran for president, and they had urged him well before now to reach out to Hill, particularly after the Kavanaugh hearings. He has been reluctant to show contrition, but the pressure increased after new questions were raised about his sensitivity toward women.
The 1991 hearings were a surreal spectacle, as senators prodded an obviously uncomfortable Hill through awkward testimony about penis size, pubic hair and a pornographic film star known as Long Dong Silver — shocking public discourse at the time. But even before they began, Hill said, she was “already disappointed” in Biden.
She said that in the days leading up to the hearing, he called her and told her that she would testify first, but that after “behind-the-scenes negotiations with Republicans,” then-Judge Thomas went first, and “was able to offer a rebuttal before I had ever said a word.”
She was asked if she felt Biden had lied to her. “I leave you to say whether he lied or not,” she said. “What he told me turned out not to be the case. If you want to call that lying that’s fine. I think at the very least I would say it was misleading.”
She said she would like sexual harassment and gender violence to be elevated as issues during the Democratic presidential primary, and wants to hear what all the candidates — including Biden — will do about it.
Whomever Democrats choose as their nominee must be able to distinguish him or herself from Trump on these issues, she said. But given his history, she was asked, does she think it will be difficult for Biden to do that?
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m willing to give him the chance. And I hope he will step up.”