Opposing Books Continue Thomas-vs.-Hill Battle


By John C. Danforth

Viking, 225 pp., $19.95


By Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson

Houghton Mifflin

406 pp. $24.95

IN October 1991, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee and a transfixed nation in Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, offered contradictory accounts about the jurist's alleged sexual harassment of his former aide. Three years later, Mr. Thomas and Ms. Hill are clashing again in the pages of two books that present widely divergent views of the antagonists and their famous confrontation.

Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri (who is retiring this year) was Thomas's sponsor in the United States Senate after Danforth's former prot was nominated to the Supreme Court by then-President Bush. Danforth worked tirelessly for Thomas's confirmation, and suffered with the nominee after Hill's sexual-harassment claims came to light.

``Resurrection: The Confirmation of Clarence Thomas'' is Danforth's account of those tumultuous events, and it is also a moving testament to friendship and religious faith.

Danforth remains convinced that Thomas was incapable of the conduct attributed to him by Hill. But the author's main purpose is not to rehash the evidence that, he believes, absolves Thomas. Danforth is not even primarily concerned with reforming the confirmation process to ensure greater fairness, though he offers some suggestions in this regard.

Rather, he sets out to describe the profoundly human dimensions, on Thomas's side, of the episode. He wants us to see that ad hominem politics smelted white hot by ideology or extreme partisanship can inflict deep suffering on human beings.

Moreover, Danforth - an ordained Episcopal priest - sees Thomas's agony and triumph, his figurative ``death'' and ``resurrection,'' as a virtual parable of Christian experience. Many readers will be touched by his obviously heartfelt book, if only because of the author's own honesty. He writes that, furious with Thomas's opponents and passionate for victory, he did things he later was ``ashamed of,'' including a reckless (and largely futile) search for dirt to smear Anita Hill.

Penitent, Danforth says he ignored what he regards as a central lesson: ``Service of a good cause does not justify the wanton destruction of a person, whether that person is Clarence Thomas or Anita Hill.''

No doubt Danforth and, even more, Justice Thomas wish that this anguished but ultimately upbeat story had the literary field to itself. But it is competing for attention with a book that stands in often troubling counterpoint to Danforth's.

In ``Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas'' - a runner-up for the National Book Award - Wall Street Journal reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson have written what appears to be an exhaustively researched account, not only of Thomas's confirmation battle, but also of the relationship between Thomas and Hill from the time he first hired her to be his assistant at the Department of Education in July 1981. Thomas comes across as far less saintly than in Danforth's book, and Hill as more victim than victimizer.

The most dramatic findings that Mayer and Abramson report have already been well publicized: that from his college days Thomas was fascinated with pornography and used coarse sexual language, and that a number of women who have worked for him besides Hill claim to have endured unwelcome advances or gratuitous sexual comments. As the authors note, these findings do not corroborate Hill's allegations, but they form a pattern of conduct that is consistent with the behavior Hill has described.

Other aspects of Thomas's career and his elevation to the Supreme Court that Mayer and Abramson describe, though less sensational, also shed an unflattering light on him. These include Thomas's disdain for affirmative action, even though, in his education and career advancement, Thomas frequently benefited from race-conscious programs; and the strenuous efforts the Bush administration made to embroider Thomas's lackluster qualifications to be a justice of the Supreme Court (hence the subtitle of the book).

No doubt some people will dispute aspects of the authors' research. Some may even question two female reporters' objectivity toward an event and an issue that have defined gender politics in the 1990s. But given the thoroughness of Mayer's and Abramson's journalism, the burden rests on critics to disprove the facts the authors present.

*James Andrews is on the Monitor staff.

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