Published 4:00 AM EDT Sep 18, 2018
I spent a very long weekend in October 1991 with Anita Hill, the law professor who accused then-Judge Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. I wasn’t part of her legal team, but as a Democratic strategist, I helped her and her team understand Congress and organize their effort.
It was one of the most dismal weekends of my life. The Democrats thought they were presiding over a hearing. The Republicans conducted a trial — of the accuser, not the accused. Anita Hill was put on trial and convicted. Clarence Thomas was not put on trial; he was put on the Supreme Court.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a new hearing Monday with testimony from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexual assault when they were teens. Senate Democrats — now in the minority — must be sure to remember the lessons of Anita Hill.
First, this will not be a hearing and certainly not a fair fight. Chairman Charles Grassley will seek to put Ford on trial, working with his Republican colleagues — all men — to undermine her credibility, destroy her character and label her a liar. In the case of Hill, Thomas was permitted to testify first, beginning the process of destruction and laying the onus on Hill to respond. Democrats should insist that Ford testify first so that Judge Kavanaugh must answer the charges, not Ford. She is not the one who has allegedly perpetrated a sexual assault.
Don't put Christine Ford on trial like Anita Hill
Second, if Ford wishes to have corroborating witnesses, every one of them should be called to testify, prior to Kavanaugh’s rebuttal. In Hill's case, proceedings were closed before any other supporting Hill witnesses were allowed to testify. That was a fatal mistake, as Democrats serving on the committee at that time have subsequently admitted. Hill was literally and figuratively alone.
Third, the polygraph test Ford voluntarily took should be admitted as pertinent to the hearing. The hearing is not a court of law and Ford’s willingness to take a polygraph and its results are relevant. Kavanaugh should, of course, be given the opportunity to take his own polygraph, should he so desire.
Fourth, Republicans will attempt to make process arguments that the timing of Ford’s allegations was politically motivated and are, thus inherently suspect. Democrats must soundly reject process arguments. Anita Hill, a private citizen, deeply underestimated the cruel questioning that awaited her. A secondary tragedy of her treatment by the Senate was that it showed other survivors — past, present and future — what awaited them should they decide to come forward.
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Little wonder why generations of survivors of sexual assault, even in the midst of today’s #MeToo movement, hesitate to speak publicly about sexual assault. And, many still do not report the attack for fear of being dismissed, diminished, and decimated by a second attack on their character.
Fifth, Democrats must embrace Ford — support her, believe in her — just as Republicans in 1991 embraced Thomas. It is noteworthy that several Republican senators, including Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, have suggested the need to slow down and consider Ford’s account of her traumatic experience. But that isn’t enough. Kavanaugh has flatly denied that any such incident occurred, effectively labeling Ford a liar.
The White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell want to confirm Kavanaugh before the risk of a Senate turnover in the Nov. 6 midterm elections. They will attempt to ensure the vote. Democrats and thoughtful Republicans must not let that happen.
This is about our values, not our parties
Finally, at the time of Anita Hill, there were only two women in the Senate: Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican, and Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat. Neither served on the Judiciary Committee. Mikulski opposed Thomas. Kassebaum supported him but later regretted her vote.
Now there are two Republican women, Murkowski and Collins, both publicly undecided, who can make the ultimate difference here if they remember the lessons of Anita Hill. They are also senators who believed Democratic Sen. Al Franken, accused of sexual harassment, should not serve out his term. Kavanaugh, if not confirmed to the Supreme Court, likely will continue his current lifetime appointment.
If we do not really hear Ford, what will it say to our daughters and our sons if we once again only believe him and not her? This is about more than the November election. This is about more than whether the court bends left or right. This is about who we are, what values we uphold.
To paraphrase West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd who, after the Anita Hill hearing, reversed his previous support for Clarence Thomas, if one can’t decide, err on the side of the country, not the court. This hearing is all about the country.
Wendy R. Sherman was undersecretary of State for political affairs from 2011-15 and led U.S. negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal. Her new book is "Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence." Follow her on Twitter: @WendyRSherman