Editor’s note: This book review appeared in the March 20, 1995, issue of National Review.
This book was billed as the Book of Revelation about the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill imbroglio. Strange Justice is based, the authors claim, on “hundreds of interviews and scores of never-before-seen documents.” As if brought to us by Indiana Jones, the project has survived “a family death, a marriage, a birth, two cross-country moves, an earthquake, a fire, and a flood.”
The book’s most colorful passages were published in advance, to much hoopla, by the Wall Street Journal, and the authors, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, made saturation appearances on the airwaves to discuss their discoveries with gushingly friendly interviewers. The authors took the precaution, however, of giving their most trumpeted interviews before the book was available to questioners, and limiting their later appearances to promotional events carefully screened against the presence of anyone — such as David Brock, author of The Real Anita Hill — Knowledgeable enough to raise hard questions.
The contents of the book make it clear why the authors have been so defensive. In fact, it contains very little that is new and certainly nothing that adds persuasive support to their surprisingly timid thesis: “that the truth in this matter favors [Anita Hill] much more than was apparent at the time of the hearings.” Thus, while the authors’ point of view is apparent on virtually every page, their most forceful conclusions are trivial, largely immaterial, and thinly supported. The inference that emerges most compellingly from this book is that Mr. Thomas, not Miss Hill, was telling the truth.
Like the famous New Yorker map of America that portrays most of the nation on the Eastern Seaboard, principally in Manhattan, Miss Mayer and Miss Abramson see America’s political landscape as divided between the reasonable Middle and the intimidating Right. They refer constantly to the “Right,” the “far Right,” the “extreme Right,” conservatives,” “ultra conservatives,” the “Christian Right,” the “Religious Right,” the “New Right,” and most terrifying of all, the “Armies of the Right.” No need to guess what the authors look for when they peer under their beds at night.
This outlook, combined with their breathless discovery that Clarence Thomas was the subject of intense advocacy by his supporters, leads to their subtitle, The Selling of Clarence Thomas. Of course, to make this point, the authors must overlook entirely the battalions of liberal reporters, congressional staffers, and left-wing interest groups that took to the field to find, report, and repeat virtually anything to stop the Thomas confirmation. Therefore, the authors’ “full story” is most certainly not the result of an “exhaustive investigation,” for it ignores entirely the unprecedented, concerted, and unprincipled effort to destroy Clarence Thomas.
Given this focus, it is not surprising that Strange Justice finds little that is new about Anita Hill. And what the authors do find, they quickly brush aside. For example, in a chapter called “Talking Wild,” they report on Miss Hill’s upbringing: “Propriety to the point of repression was a family trait.” “Sex was a taboo subject.” Miss Hill was “prickly and brittle,” was “petulant,” possessed “rigid mores,” was “uptight or even prissy,” “sent mixed signals, making misunderstandings likely,” and was “quick to take offense.”
Despite all this, and despite “questions that can be raised relative to the accuracy of her memory and clarity of her judgment,” the authors resolutely refuse to consider whether Miss Hill somehow transformed innocuous or innocent remarks into “the most humiliating sexual conduct she had ever experienced.” Given the otherwise inexplicable conflict between her version of events and the parade of witnesses who supported Clarence Thomas, it is curious that the authors did not explore the most obvious explanation.
For example, Mr. Thomas denied ever having made the pubic-hair-on-the-Coke-can remark. Miss Hill denied that she ever repeated this alleged private, conversation to anyone else. Yet the book contends that several people at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (where Miss Hill worked for Mr. Thomas) had apparently heard such a “story” — though none of them heard it directly from Clarence Thomas. Is it possible that Miss Hill heard the pubic-hair story through the EEOC grapevine and believed that it was attributable to a remark made by Mr. Thomas? Since no one but she ever heard him make such a statement, why couldn’t it be the prissy, quick-to-be-offended witness with the bad memory who got it wrong?
The authors similarly mangle their own investigation of Anita Hill’s 11-month law-firm tenure before her job with Clarence Thomas. This job was at one of the “most sought-after law firms in the country.” During her brief time there, the authors reveal, Miss Hill was believed to be “romantically involved” with one of the firm’s married partners, despite the firm’s policy against such liaisons. Her work was perceived by superiors as “satisfactory, but not outstanding.” Indeed, some graded her work as “uneven,” and there were “more than a few criticisms.” She tended to “disappear” into the library, “left work altogether” during one emergency assignment, and produced fewer “billable hours” than any of the firm’s other associates.
Any objective partner at any prominent law firm would have told Miss Mayer and Miss Abramson that only a miracle could have saved Anita Hill after such a miserable beginning, and would have had little trouble believing the affidavit of the partner who said she had been encouraged to leave. But the authors draw the revealingly untenable conclusion that Miss Hill was “not in any trouble” at the firm.
The biggest surprise of Strange Justice is what Miss Mayer and Miss Abramson fail to establish. They obviously were prepared to strain mightily. But their much-published claim that Thomas papered his walls with Playboy centerfolds comes from a witness who later told one television interviewer that she saw one centerfold, and told another there may have been two. Playboy, meanwhile, is scarcely hard-core pornography. During Thomas’s student days, Yale Law School was exhibiting Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, cinema that certainly makes Playboy seem tame.
The book offers no evidence that Clarence Thomas ever sought dates from employees at any of his other jobs, or that he ever actually dated anyone at the EEOC. Thus, there is little corroborative evidence of sexual harassment. The one witness Strange Justice offers to support Miss Hill’s version left five consecutive jobs under a cloud, and never felt the slightest bit intimidated by Thomas, because, as the authors put it, she had “been fending off male advances for years.”
Strange Justice substantiates one bit of Clarence Thomas’s testimony that has been widely challenged as incredible, and was characterized by Miss Mayer and Miss Abramson themselves as “blatant obfuscation.” Thomas testified that he had never debated the merits of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision. The authors ultimately have to concede that not one of their hundreds of interviewees said he or she had heard Thomas discuss the case. They admit, “no one recalled [Thomas] expressing himself on Roe.”
Strange Justice is a strange book. It proves that after four separate Senate confirmations of Clarence Thomas, and four months of highly publicized digging for dirt on the nominee, it still took a concentrated effort of importuning by a host of liberal Senate staffers and interest-group investigators to wrest from a reluctant Anita Hill the story that nearly destroyed Clarence Thomas. Three years later, the peculiar testimony of a quick-to-be-offended, priggish, petulant witness with a self-acknowledged “repressed memory” is no more credible than it was then.