Joe Biden was the chair of the Senate's Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings in 1991. In contrast to his more recent incarnation as the beloved elder statesman and erstwhile sidekick to Barack Obama, Biden played a singular role in delivering Anita Hill into a lion's den of misogyny and ensuring that her testimony that Thomas sexually harassed her when she was in his employ at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would be ridiculed.
Biden was a well-ensconced member of the Old Boys' Network aka The United States Senate, and did his level best to be a neutral arbiter, which allowed the more aggressive, overtly-sexist Republicans to control the proceedings. (Sound familiar?) In his efforts to be unstintingly fair to Thomas -- to the detriment of Thomas' victims -- he repeatedly assured him that "you have the benefit of the doubt," despite the lack of any legal justification for such an assurance. This was not a judicial proceeding, it was a confirmation hearing.
Biden had the power to permit expert testimony on sexual harassment but he refused. He had the power to restrain the insulting and humiliating questioning of Hill but failed to do so -- and got into the act himself (asking Hill about how she felt during an alleged sexually-charged interaction with Thomas, “Were you uncomfortable, were you embarrassed, did it not concern you?”) And, worst of all, he reached a private compromise with Republican senators -- a classic back room deal -- not to call witnesses who would have corroborated Hill, most importantly, Angela Wright, another former employee of Thomas at the EEOC who also claimed to have been sexually harassed by him.
Thomas was confirmed by a painfully slim margin, 52–48, with the help of 11 Democrats. Although Biden voted against Thomas, his shameful performance as Judiciary Chair is directly responsible for one of the most reactionary Supreme Court justices in U.S. history.
Now that we are seemingly at a watershed moment in which sexual misconduct by men in power is coming under scrutiny, questions about Clarence Thomas and how the sexual harassment allegations against him were addressed are getting a well-needed second look.
In an interview with Teen Vogue, Joe Biden was asked about his role in hearings. He focused on his inability to control his "Republican friends," stating "my one regret is that I wasn’t able to tone down the attacks on her by some of my Republican friends. I mean, they really went after her. As much as I tried to intervene, I did not have the power to gavel them out of order. I tried to be like a judge and only allow a question that would be relevant to ask."
I'm gonna call bullshit. First, Biden was not a judge, he was the chairman of the committee and certainly had the power to "gavel" the unwarranted attacks on Anita Hill as out of order. But what Biden conveniently elides is his pivotal role ahead of the proceedings in rigging things in favor of the nominee in a way that would undermine the credibility of Anita Hill -- failing to set parameters for questions and failing to allow corroborating testimony.
Anita Hill recently told the Washington Post that she believes that Biden still doesn't get it -- that he fails to “take ownership of his role in what happened.” As she said: "he also doesn’t understand that it wasn’t just that I felt it was not fair. It was that women were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his leadership to really open the way to have these kinds of hearings. They should have been using best practices to show leadership on this issue on behalf of women’s equality. And they did just the opposite.”
Biden concludes in his Teen Vogue interview: "I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill. I owe her an apology." You sure do, Joe.