Kavanaugh Allegations Recall 1991’s Supreme Court Scandal, With Key Differences

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Professor Christine Blasey Ford came forward on Sunday for the first time telling her story alleging that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually attacked her 35 years ago when the two were both in high school.

So how is this different from the sexual harassment allegations made against now Justice Clarence Thomas by law professor Anita Hill in 1991 at his confirmation hearing?

I know because I was there. I broke the story and then watched in amazement as events unfolded.

There are big differences and similarities in these two events.

First, the differences

Hill and Thomas were adults: Hill's accounts involved events that she said took place over a prolonged period of time in an employment setting when she worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

While there was no touching involved, Hill said Thomas had eight years earlier first tried to date her, and when she declined, he subjected her, over a long period of time, to sexually explicit and sometimes bizarre sexual comments.

Physical attack: Ford's allegations, first reported with her name attached to them by The Washington Post, involve a single sexual attack — a very physical attack — that she said took place at an unsupervised teenage party, where high school kids were drinking.

Ford charges that a "stumbling drunk" Kavanaugh, who was 17 at the time, attacked her 36 years ago, when she was 15. She said Kavanaugh was one of four boys at a private party of teenagers with no parental supervision.

She alleges that when she went upstairs to go to the bathroom, Kavanaugh and another boy, Mark Judge, pulled her into a bedroom and locked the door. According to Ford, Kavanaugh then jumped on top of her, tried to take her clothes off, and when she tried to scream, put his hand over her mouth and turned up the music. She said was able to free herself when Judge jumped on the bed, too, sending the three tumbling, giving her a chance to run into the bathroom and lock the door.

Both Hill and Blasey Ford took professionally administered polygraph tests and passed. But while Hill told several friends contemporaneously about what was happening to her on the job, Ford said she told nobody. She told The Washington Post she was terrified to tell her parents that she had been at a party where teenagers were drinking.

"I'm not telling anyone this," she recalled thinking. "This is nothing. It didn't happen, and he didn't rape me."

But after going through psychotherapy, she came to understand the events that night as trauma with lasting impact on her life. She did not tell anyone the details of that night until 2012.

The #MeToo movement: Hill's allegations occurred in 1991, when there was no #MeToo movement and, indeed, sexual harassment claims were often not considered serious matters. When I first learned of Hill's charges back then, most of the Democratic senators I talked to did not want a public airing of her charges, believing that, as one put it, "This is not a silver bullet."

The makeup of the Senate: At the time of the Hill allegations, there were no women on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and only two women in the U.S. Senate — Republican Nancy Kassebaum and Democrat Barbara Mikulski.

When my story broke, a group of female House members marched over to the Senate to urge their colleagues in "the other body" to investigate, but they were, as one put it to me, "totally dissed" by the senators.

Today there are no female Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, but there are four Democratic women, including ranking member Dianne Feinstein, who was elected the year after the Hill-Thomas hearings, in what came to be known as "The Year of the Woman."

Moreover, today there are 23 female senators, nearly a quarter of the Senate. And there is an activist #MeToo movement.

Now for the similarities

Desire to avoid the spotlight: In both cases, the women did not initially want to go public or be identified by name as an accuser. Ford first reported her charges to The Washington Post tip line in July and to her congresswoman, Anna Eshoo, and to Feinstein. She signed the letter, but asked for confidentiality. She did not want to go public with the accusation and be the focus of public attention.

Feinstein honored Ford's desire for confidentiality and did not inform other senators about the allegation. But last week The Intercept, an online magazine, printed some details of her allegation, without naming Ford, and the hunt was on to find her.

At that point, Ford decided she was losing the privacy she had sought to protect and that it was time to go public, which she did in an interview in the Post. She has also said she is willing to cooperate with the Judiciary Committee.

Both Hill and Blasey Ford are professors: Both Hill and Blasey Ford have advanced degrees and are well-respected by their colleagues. Hill was a professor at the University of Oklahoma law school (and is currently teaching at Brandeis).

Blasey Ford is a psychologist and biostatistician affiliated with Stanford and Palo Alto universities. She earned her master's degree from Stanford and her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

Both told the committee of their allegations in advance of the nominees' hearings: Like Ford, Hill first informed the Judiciary Committee of her charges well before the hearings on Thomas' nomination were to begin in 1991. But she didn't want her identity revealed, and then-Chairman Joe Biden didn't pursue the matter. Some of his Democratic colleagues, however, urged him to at least send the FBI to interview Hill and Thomas, which he did.

The matter seemed to end there, but was quickly revived.

On Oct. 1, 1991, the Judiciary Committee voted 7-7 on the nomination but reported it without recommendation to the Senate floor. And I, after a lot of tire-kicking, finally learned of Hill's identity. After checking out her reputation and background, I contacted her, but she didn't want to talk — unless I got a copy of the affidavit she had given the Judiciary Committee.

By Oct. 4, I had the story, but I couldn't get Biden to call me back. I did something then that I would never do today in the era of instant communication: I waited, still trying to reach him, to no avail.

Finally, on Oct. 6, with a detailed Hill interview in hand, corroboration from some of her friends, and at least one senator on the record, the story aired on NPR.

Two days later, with fax machines virtually vaporizing on Capitol Hill, Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas decided to cancel the vote scheduled for that day. He no longer had the certain votes to win confirmation, and he and Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine agreed to a postponement and a second hearing to begin three days later.

The hearings lasted for three days, often into the very late hours of the evening. They were brutal for both the accuser and the accused. But because they were scheduled so quickly, there was not enough time for the usual investigative work that might have been done.

And at the end of the day, the country was divided along he-said, she-said lines.

There were three corroborating witnesses the Democrats had, who would have testified about conduct similar to what Hill alleged. But Biden did not call them to testify, a step he has now said publicly that he regrets.

Categorical denials of the allegations: Both Thomas then, and Kavanaugh now, vehemently denied the allegations against them. Thomas called the second hearing on his nomination "a high-tech lynching."

Kavanaugh has flatly and categorically denied Ford's allegations. "I have never done anything like what the accuser describes — to her or anyone else," he said in a statement. But he said he is "willing to talk to the Senate Judiciary Committee in any way the Committee deems appropriate," to "refute" the allegation that he said "never happened."

The Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have now asked the White House to have the FBI investigate Ford's charges. Last week, the FBI said it had simply referred the matter to the White House, as an update to Kavanaugh's background check.

Democrats want more now. They want the FBI to question Ford, Judge and others at the party that night. They want an examination of Ford's psychiatric notes that the Washington Post has reported corroborate that she discussed the alleged attack in couples therapy with her husband in 2012. And they want time to pursue other leads, if they exist.

Confusion about how to proceed: The Ford allegations, like the Hill allegations, have caused great angst among senators about how to proceed. The pressures are different today than they were 27 years ago when Thomas was ultimately confirmed by a two-vote margin.

Republicans, who accused Hill of everything from "erotomania" to just being a liar, this time don't want to look insensitive and incurious, but they want their nominee confirmed quickly. And they see a very big difference between a drunken teenage party, where memories are dim if they exist at all, and sexual harassment charges on the job.

As for Democrats, well, they wish things had been done a little differently this time, too, and that all this were not occurring at the eleventh hour.

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