On a Friday evening in 1991, Clarence Thomas’s nomination was in trouble. Anita Hill’s sober, matter-of-fact demeanor during her testimony that Thomas had sexually harassed her during their time at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had been inconsistent with the conservative campaign to paint her as an emotionally unstable, and perhaps romantically spurned, liar. Now it was Thomas’s turn to respond.
In Strange Justice, their chronicle of the battle over Thomas’s nomination, Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer wrote that Thomas paced back and forth in the office of his benefactor, Senator John Danforth. He told Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah that he didn’t believe he was going to make it. “Yes, you are,” Hatch told Thomas, “but it’s going to be close.”
It was Hatch who encouraged Thomas to lose his temper, so that he might deliver the strongest testimony in his own defense. “The strategy was useful from the larger political standpoint too,” Abramson and Mayer wrote. “Not only would it make Thomas angry, it would also anger the countless number of black viewers, whose sympathies were so critical to the nomination.”
Republicans dusted off the Thomas strategy on Thursday, as they sought to defend President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, from the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who told the Senate that Kavanaugh had attempted to rape her when they were teenagers. Like Thomas, Kavanaugh alleged that the charges were a liberal conspiracy to smear him. But where Thomas self-righteously invoked centuries of racist terrorism and oppression to defend himself, Kavanaugh’s rage was that of a member of the gilded class, whose political connections and private-school educations were supposed to shield him from scrutiny or accountability, even that which comes with an appointment on the nation’s highest court.