The Slate Gist

Bill Clinton vs. Clarence Thomas

When Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, right-wingers dismissed her as a “liar” and an “erotomaniac.” Now the same right-wingers have embraced Paula Jones’ sexual-harassment case against Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, Hill’s feminist supporters, who once claimed that women “don’t make these things up,” have rallied to the president’s defense or are silent about the accusations involving Jones, Monica Lewinsky, and others. Each side accuses the other of hypocrisy. What are the similarities and the differences between the two cases?

1The evidence: Similar evidence supports Jones’ and Hill’s accusations. Their credibility depends on corroboration by people who claim they were told of the harassment soon after it occurred. Six affidavits say that Paula Jones spoke of her encounter with Bill Clinton on the same day it allegedly happened. Four witnesses testified under oath that Hill told them about Thomas’ harassment during the period it allegedly occurred. Possibly because Hill’s corroborators didn’t testify until eight years after she had stopped working for Thomas, their statements contain more contradictions than those made by Jones’ corroborators. (Evidence supporting the contention that Clinton groped Kathleen Willey–his other alleged victim of harassment–is much shakier. A friend of Willey’s disputes key facts about the claim, and Willey has yet to make her case publicly.)

2 Ulterior motives: Critics argue that Hill and Jones have allied with opportunistic ideological zealots. And they are right. Hill testified only after liberal Senate aides had tracked her down and leaked her story; feminist groups such as the Women’s Legal Defense Fund advised her. Professional Arkansas Clinton-hater Cliff Jackson coaxed Jones into filing suit; Robert Bork has coached Jones’ lawyers; and the religious right’s Rutherford Institute now helps fund her case. While right-wing and left-wing groups have helped trumpet the two women’s causes, nobody has shown convincingly that either side trumped up the accusations.

3 Lingering doubts: Fundamental logical flaws in the stories of both Hill and Jones continue to create doubts: If Thomas was such an intolerable boss, why did Hill leave a secure job to follow him from the Department of Education to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? Why did she continue to telephone him after she no longer worked for him? If Jones is interested only in clearing her name, why did she decide to make such a public case against the president?

4 What the men (allegedly) did: The behavior at issue is very different in the two cases. Which is worse? Are Clinton’s alleged short episodes of physical assault more reprehensible than Thomas’ alleged two-and-a-half-year verbal assault? Thomas may have talked about porn films, asked Hill out on patently unwelcome dates, bragged about his sexual prowess, and referred to pubic hairs on Coke cans, but Hill says that Thomas never flashed his genitals, touched her sexually, or propositioned her explicitly.

5 Just say no? Some Clinton defenders note that he always flags his lascivious intentions before expressing them. He flirted with Willey over the phone before putting the moves on her. When State Trooper Danny Ferguson invited Jones to Clinton’s hotel room, he told her, “The governor says you make his knees knock.” Once Clinton realized these women wanted none of him, he backed off. He purportedly told Jones, “Well, I don’t want to make you do anything that you don’t want to do.” By contrast, Thomas failed to pick up on Hill’s lack of interest, her repeated assertions that she didn’t want to date Thomas and her “obvious discomfort” with his “wild talk.” (Hill’s critics say she should have emphatically told Thomas to stop.)

6 The Jordan connection: One unnoted similarity between the two cases is the role of Vernon Jordan. Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson report in their book, Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, that Clinton buddy Jordan spent a day prepping Thomas for his confirmation hearings.

7 Did Thomas and Clinton violate the law? If “the law” is the one against sexual harassment, the answer in both cases is: Probably not.

According to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964–the basis for most harassment cases–harassment is actionable when it is “sufficiently severe and pervasive to … create an abusive working environment.” Because Jones failed to file her suit before Title VII’s 180-day statute of limitations, her lawyers have used an obscure Reconstruction-era anti-Ku Klux Klan law to make her case. Assuming she did qualify for Title VII, her legal case is still weak: a) There is no evidence that Jones suffered any retaliation for refusing Clinton. She received regular pay increases and promotions after the alleged incident. b) Courts rarely consider a one-time instance of harassment “severe and pervasive.” c) Title VII doesn’t prohibit propositioning colleagues or exposing one’s genitals to them.

W illey might have a better case against Clinton if she wants to make it–and if her story is true. She was visiting the White House in search of a job when he allegedly pawed her.

Even if completely true, the Monica Lewinsky tale is one of consensual sex, not harassment. The relationship it describes may strike many as exploitative or ugly for other reasons, but it is not illegal.

Hill never claimed that her unpleasant encounters with Thomas constituted actionable sexual harassment. She would have had difficulty proving in court that Thomas had created an “abusive working environment,” because she never complained about his harassment and maintained her friendship with him even after she left the EEOC.

8 Volume discount? There is only one public accusation against Thomas. (Other women, though, were prepared to testify against him and didn’t get the chance.) There are at least three public accusations against Clinton.

9 Addiction: Following the Lewinsky scandal, much has been made of Clinton’s alleged “sexaholism,” his pathological inability to control his sexual appetites. Thomas is accused of having a problem keeping his hands off pornography. According to Mayer and Abramson, his viewing pleasures included films such as The Adventures of Bad Mama Jama, about the interracial sexcapades of an obese black woman. They also say he papered the walls of his apartment with nude centerfolds and meticulously maintained a Playboy collection. (Right-wing investigative journalist David Brock argues that many of Mayer and Abramson’s sources for these allegations have recanted/claim they were misquoted.)

10 Lying: Defenders of both men have argued that, even if true, the behavior they stand accused of is harmless. Thomas’ defenders, especially, have said that making such a big deal over a few crass remarks reflects the excesses of political correctness. But neither man has attempted to defend the behavior he is accused of. Rather, both insist it never happened. Thomas specifically and emotionally declared that Hill’s tale, if true, was repugnant and would disqualify him to sit on the Supreme Court.

Thomas proponents contrast his categorical denials of Hill’s allegations with Clinton’s evasive legalistic denials. Even if Clinton had done Jones no wrong, they say, his dissembling bespeaks a character unfit for his job. Thomas critics say he cynically played the race card by accusing his opponents of conspiring to bring down an uppity black man. Even if he had done Hill no wrong, they say, his response bespeaks a character unfit for his job.

11 Cover-up: If the allegations are true, both men lied under oath about them–a criminal offense. Clinton also is accused of suborning perjury. On the Linda Tripp tapes, Lewinsky allegedly says Clinton coached her to deny a relationship. The Los Angeles Times has reported that Clinton asked Ferguson not to testify about the encounter with Jones. No one has accused Thomas of trying to silence Hill. (As the case arose, he had neither the time nor the opportunity.)

12 Special circumstances: Thomas’ alleged harassment is deemed especially damning because it occurred while he headed the EEOC and was simultaneously approving regulations for workplace harassment. Clinton’s critics say he should be reprimanded as a CEO or university president facing similar accusations would–by being removed from his job.

1 3 Ideological cross-dressing: Both conservatives and feminists seek to explain away their Jones-Hill flip-flop. Feminists say that Hill came forward at a time when nobody believed victims of sexual harassment. Because they advocated Hill’s cause, they say, victims of harassment now have more credibility. Case in point: Jones has no shortage of supporters and needs no feminist help. Other feminists such as Susan Estrich concede that their attacks on Thomas were indeed politically motivated. Conservatives explain the table-turning by continuing to attack Hill’s credibility and accusing the feminists of class bias against the “big-haired” Jones.

14 Timing: The accusations against Thomas came when he was up for a job. Senators were about to vote on his fitness for a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court–and they would have had to vote even if Hill had not come forward with her tale. Clinton, by contrast, is in a job. He is in his second term as president and can be removed only by impeachment. Some Clinton defenders argue that the voters knew about the president’s alleged proclivities, if they didn’t know the details of any particular case, and implicitly accepted them when they elected him twice.

Others argue that a presidential impeachment would be far more disruptive and costly to the nation than a Senate committee’s rejection of a Supreme Court nominee; they say it isn’t worth it. This isn’t exactly a defense of Clinton’s alleged behavior, but it has the same practical effect.