Pres. George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court on July 1, 1991. Four days later, the National Organization for Women (NOW) declared war.
“We’re going to bork him,” vowed member Flo Kennedy. “We need to kill him politically.”To “bork,”
according to William Safire’s Political Dictionary
, is “to viciously attack a presidential nominee, blackening his name in an all-out effort to defeat his confirmation by the Senate.” The verb stems from the name of Pres. Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated nominee Robert Bork, whose confirmation the Senate rejected, 42–58, in 1987.
By 1991, Republican presidents had appointed the last nine members of the Court (though not every nominee had proven to be conservative). Roe v. Wade had been on the books for 18 years, but its supporters were worried. Here was a black Republican — to fill the seat that Thurgood Marshall had held for 24 years, no less. And the Democrat-controlled Senate was poised to confirm him.
“We will not sit quietly by while the Democratic Senate acquiesces to this court-packing strategy,” promised Patricia Ireland, vice president of NOW.
They were anything but quiet. NOW waged a national campaign to defeat Thomas. The National Education Association joined the cause, passing a resolution expressing “grave concern” over Thomas’s position on “reproductive freedom.”
By any means, Thomas was qualified. He was a graduate of Yale Law School who had spent eight years as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and one year as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. But perhaps his most beneficial experience was a stint as an aide to Sen. Jack Danforth (Mo.), a moderate Republican whom the Bush administration asked to shepherd his nomination through the Senate. Before the Judiciary Committee held hearings, Danforth accompanied Thomas on over 60 visits with senators.
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Joe Biden (D., Del.), assisted the feminists’ assault on Thomas. The Senate had confirmed the 43-year-old judge for other positions, so there was no need for a thorough investigation. Yet Biden delayed the hearings until late September.
“It was an intentional delay,” remembers former senator Hank Brown, (R., Colo.). “It was designed to accommodate the people who went after him.”
In the first round of questioning, the Democrats tried to pin down Thomas’s judicial philosophy — that is, they tried to get him to talk about Roe v. Wade. They were skeptical when he told them he had never discussed the infamous case. But in his memoir, Thomas explains, “In law school I’d been a self-styled ‘lazy libertarian’ who saw abortion as a purely personal matter. . . . Roe was handed down after I studied constitutional law.”
Mostly splitting along party lines, the committee defeated a motion to recommend his confirmation, but Thomas survived. (Only one Democrat, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, voted in Thomas’s favor.) On Sept. 27, 1991, the committee voted to send his nomination to the floor without a recommendation. The Senate scheduled a vote on Thomas’s nomination for October 8, and Danforth believed Thomas would get about 67 votes.
Then he got a phone call from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah).
It was the night of October 5, and Danforth was watching a movie at home with his wife. When he picked up the phone, Hatch was on the line. He told Danforth that National Public Radio was running a story the next morning about a former assistant to Thomas named Anita Hill, who had alleged he had sexually harassed her.
“Oh, Orrin,” Danforth replied. “No one’s going to believe that.”
Hatch was less sanguine. “This is going to be tough,” he said.
Initially, Hill didn’t want to testify before Congress. The FBI had promised her anonymity, and the bureau had briefed the ranking members of the Judiciary Committee on her allegations.
“Biden had already signed off on the FBI report as not cause for any delay in the proceedings,” says Boyden Gray, then counsel to the president. Hill’s allegations didn’t add up: The FBI determined that “what she was complaining about had occurred — based on her own timeline — two or three months before she had ever met Thomas.” Nonetheless, “once it was leaked to the public, it started the whole thing all over again.”