At Anita Hill Hearings, Starkly Different Roles For Two New England Senators

Sep 25, 2018

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear this week from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, over sexual assault allegations.

There are three senators from New England on the panel: Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Vermont's Patrick Leahy, allDemocrats.

Leahy was also one of two senators from the region on the committee in 1991, when a similar set of hearings took place around the nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas.

And Leahy was one of the lead questioners of Thomas and his accuser, Anita Hill.

A former prosecutor, Leahy was charged with asking Hill about some of the more sensitive allegations.

“You said that [Thomas] described pornographic movies to you,” Leahy asked. “Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Hill replied.

“And – explicitly described them?” Leahy pressed.

“Yes.”

And when the Judiciary Committee met the next day, it was Leahy who followed up with Thomas on that particular accusation.

“Did you ever have a discussion of pornographic films with Professor Hill?” he asked.

“Absolutely not,” Thomas said.

“Ever had -- with any other women?” Leahy asked.

“Senator, I will not get into any discussions that I might have about my personal life or my sex life with any person outside of the workplace,” Thomas said. “I will categorically say, I have not had any such discussions with… Professor Hill.”

While Leahy was front-and-center during the hearings, the other senator from New England on the committee, Ted Kennedy, kept mostly quiet.

When given the opportunity to question Hill, the Massachusetts Democrat instead offered a broad statement about sexual harassment.

“If we are able to make some progress on it, I think history books will show that it’s -- to a very important extent -- it’s because of your action,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy at another point interrupted a tense exchange between Hill and the chief Republican questioner, Pennsylania Senator Arlen Specter.

“Let the witness speak in her own words, rather than having words put in her own mouth,” Kennedy said.

“Uh, Mr. Chairman, I object to that,” Specter said. “I object to that vociferously. I am asking questions here. If Senator Kennedy has anything to say, let him participate in this hearing.”

Kennedy leaned back in his chair as the chairman, Delaware Democrat Joe Biden, told everyone to “calm down.”

Kennedy had even less to say to Thomas.

“Judge, we just thank you for coming under extraordinary difficult circumstances,” Kennedy said.

Several newspapers reported at the time that Kennedy faced criticism about his lack of participation during the Thomas-Hill hearings.

The Boston Globe editorial board speculated Kennedy remained quiet because of "his reputation as a womanizer."

Also around that time: the rape trial of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, at which the senator ended up testifying.

In his memoir many years later, Kennedy blamed procedural rules for his muted participation in the hearings, but did admit he would have been the wrong person to lead the questioning.

And for the record, both Kennedy and Leahy voted against the Thomas nomination.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said there are currently two senators from New England on the Judiciary Committee. There are three.