Bench Memos

The Legacy of Howard Metzenbaum

Howard M. Metzenbaum, Democrat, former senator from Ohio, died Wednesday in Florida at the age of 90.  His obituary in today’s Washington Post quotes Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) calling Metzenbaum “the conscience of the Senate,” and the Post’s own account begins by describing him as “the Ohio senator who battled big business, stood up for labor and consumers and blocked scores of special-interest bills.”  Over in the New York Times, the obituarist oh-so-faintly remembers an episode in Metzenbaum’s career about which the Post is discreetly silent: his role in the shameful second round of Judiciary Committee hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1991, in which, says the Times, Metzenbaum “hammered Mr. Thomas relentlessly on accusations of sexual harassment.”

That he certainly did.  But as Justice Thomas reminds us in his recent memoir My Grandfather’s Son, it was Senator Metzenbaum who wanted to shut out the witnesses who rebutted Anita Hill’s charges, foregoing their testimony altogether on grounds that the Judiciary Committee “could stipulate that all of that testimony will be supportive of Clarence Thomas,” and concluding that “I don’t know why there’s any reason to have to hear it.”  It was Metzenbaum, Thomas also reminds us, who unwisely suggested that perhaps John Doggett, a witness friendly to Thomas, was guilty of sexual harassment himself.

Justice Thomas does not mention something that has long been widely believed but never proven–that it was with the connivance of Howard Metzenbaum that Anita Hill’s preposterous story was first leaked to Nina Totenberg of NPR.  The senator denied it in open committee, but the charge is credible nonetheless.

Why did Metzenbaum have it in for Clarence Thomas in such an obvious and spiteful way?  Perhaps it was nothing more than a diehard liberal’s fear and loathing of a black conservative.  But it may be also that in private, Clarence Thomas had made Metzenbaum feel a fool.  As he tells it in My Grandfather’s Son, during the rounds of courtesy calls paid on senators, many weeks before Anita Hill’s allegations surfaced, Thomas sat down with Metzenbaum, who merely “went through the motions of civility during my visit.”

At one point he actually tried to lure me into a discussion of natural law, but I knew he was no philosopher, just another cynical politician looking for a chink in my armor, so all I did was ask him if he would consider having a human-being sandwich for lunch instead of, say, a turkey sandwich.  That’s Natural Law 101: all law is based on some sense of moral principles inherent in the nature of human beings, which explains why cannibalism, even without a written law to proscribe it, strikes every civilized person as naturally wrong.  Any well-read college student would have gotten my point, but Senator Metzenbaum just stared at me awkwardly and changed the subject as fast as he could.

It may be that this was imprudent, showing up (even in private) a powerful senator who could make trouble.  Perhaps Thomas thought he had nothing to lose, having encountered the bombastic Metzenbaum before.  But if it was indeed the Ohio Democrat who was indispensable to ginning up the whole tawdry second round of Thomas hearings, then he very nearly got his revenge.

One may hope that the “conscience of the Senate” is now at peace with himself in another place.  One may always hope.

Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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