Digging For Dirt

Clarence Thomas and his advisers knew that denial alone would not me enough to refute Anita Hill's charges, so they scrambled to find material that would destroy her credibility, casting doubt on her motives, her private life and even her sanity, according to a new book, "Strange Justice," by two Wall Street Journal reporters. One particularly startling rumor was that Hill had sprinkled pubic hairs on term papers she returned to her law students at Oral Roberts University in the early 1980's. The source of this and other gossip was the "Fringe Riders"--a group of loudmouthed white male students who made a sport of disrupting Hill's classes. With the hearings quickly coming to a close, aides to GOP Sens. Hank Brown of Colorado and Alan Simpson of Wyoming worked far into Saturday night on what came to be known as the "pube affidavit":

In the open hearing room, Simpson hinted broadly that Hill might not be as pristine as she appeared. ""I am getting stuff over the transom about Professor Hill. I have got letters hanging out of my pockets. I have got faxes, I have got statements from . . . people that knew her, statements from Tulsa, Oklahoma, saying watch out for this woman!''

But Simpson also had a problem: One of the Fringe Riders, Brett Godfrey, had told his father, a prominent attorney and conservative in Wyoming, he had some salacious information about Hill. The senior Godfrey was glad to pass on the information, but he did not want his son's name to be used. Brett Godfrey would not testify or even back up his stories in a sworn affidavit. The situation was so tantalizing to the Republicans that top officials at the Justice Department and the White House intervened, begging the Godfreys to go public. But they would not.

An aide from [GOP Sen.] Hank Brown's office joined the lobbying effort, spending two hours on the phone with the young Godfrey. Hill's former pupil asserted that Hill was a ""radical feminist, anti-male, and a sixties-style activist'' with unusual sexual habits, the aide recalled. Godfrey also said that Hill was a contradictory person, both a prude and a tease, who was said to be a lesbian, but who was so attractive that he would not have minded dating her himself. On one occasion, he claimed, she had sauntered up to him wearing a tight skirt and a fluffy angora sweater, smiled, and said -- ostensibly referring to herself -- ""Your favorite flavor has to be chocolate.'' On another occasion, he said, the professor had come up to a clutch of Fringe Riders, including himself, and inexplicably asked, ""Who do you think you are, Long Dong Silver?''

Finally, Godfrey said that she had handed classwork back to some of the other Fringe Riders with a dozen or so pubic hairs enclosed in each of their plastic binders. The pubic hair motif, the reference to Long Dong Silver and the picture of Hill talking dirty to her students could not have been better constructed to show that it was Hill, not Thomas, who had a seriously strange behavioral problem. But with Godfrey unwilling to testify, Brown's office had to find corroboration.

Thomas had railed against what he considered the sleazy tactics of his opponents, but now an international search for dirt on Hill ensued. One former Fringe Rider, reached in Canada, said he could not help because he was too busy studying for the bar exam. In St. Louis, an attorney named Jeff Londoff was startled to receive a call at home from an aide to Senator Brown -- and even more surprised when the aide asked whether he still had the plastic binder with the pubic hairs that Hill had returned nearly a decade earlier. Could he go up to his attic and look for it? the aide asked.

After a brief search, Londoff reported that none of the hairs had survived the years, making a forensic examination (which the aide wanted) impossible. But Londoff was taken aback by the questioning. As he remembered it, one of the other Fringe Riders, Larry Shiles, had found a couple of short curly hairs on his paper; he had cracked that either Professor Hill had graded the papers in the bathroom or else she didn't think much of his work. But Londoff said that even at the time, ""the whole thing was just a joke. How the hell would anyone know whether it was pubic hair or not? The lady's black, you know, she's got kinky hair. Or it could have come from an assistant too.''

Even so, the Senate aide was extraordinarily persistent, Londoff said, calling him ten or twelve times during the next day or so. The aide also faxed draft affidavits, attesting to the ""pube'' story and to Hill's alleged radicalism, for Londoff to sign. ""They wanted to put as much crap down on her as they could,'' he said. ""At one point they said . . . she had made advances to Brett. I think they were looking for anything they could find, but the affidavit was so one-sided, I refused to sign.''

The Republicans had one last hope: the jokester Larry Shiles himself. He now practiced personal injury law in Tulsa. But to the growing despair of the Republicans, Shiles was away with his son in the wilds of Rifle, Colo., hunting for elk.

Undeterred, at midnight that Saturday, Sen. Brown's office succeeded in tracking Shiles down at his motel. Shiles -- whom Londoff said ""had a problem with Professor Hill for a number of reasons,'' one of which was that ""he didn't do too well in her class'' -- was happy to sign the ""pube'' affidavit. But time was of the essence. The Senate aide searched the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory for the law office closest to Rifle and arranged for Shiles to make his statement legally binding with a notarized signature early Sunday morning, preferably before the hearings reopened.

Even Shiles's good friends doubted his reliability as a witness. As Londoff put it, ""You have to understand, Larry has a different view about black and white [people]. He's a great guy, but he's from down South, if you know what I mean . . . And Hill -- well, the lady was black at an almost all-white school. There were a lot of racist cracks.''

Yet, despite his antipathy toward Hill, Shiles denied Godfrey's story about her having spoken of Long Dong Silver. Reached in Tulsa a year after the hearings, he said, ""Godfrey claims I heard her say it, but I have no memory of it whatsoever.''

Neither did John Eagleton, the third and final Fringe Rider whom Godfrey named as an eyewitness to Hill's mention of Long Dong Silver. He remembered hearing Godfrey claim that Hill had stomped off angrily because of a conversation that touched on pornography, but he admitted that he never actually heard Hill say such a thing himself. And as for the pubic hair story, Eagleton, who was present when the papers were returned and who thought very little of Hill, nonetheless said, ""It's a crock.''

Regardless, the Republicans knew that the ""pube'' affidavit could do horrendous damage to Hill. And even if it was never released publicly, it could be a powerful bargaining chip that would thoroughly intimidate the Democrats. Still, [GOP Sen. John] Danforth was so determined to use the material that he wanted to hand out copies of the law student's statement to the media, going outside the controlled environment of the hearings so that no one could cross-examine the source of the tales. Later, Danforth admitted that ""In my quest for affidavits I was showing no concern at all for fairness to Anita Hill.''

As for the other faxes, letters, and statements Simpson was getting ""over the transom,'' not all of them were as spontaneous as he made them sound. Many of them had originated in Washington -- with a helping hand from Morton Blackwell, a conservative activist whose ingenuity and money were behind one of the ad hoc black groups that supported Thomas's confirmation.

Blackwell had a contact named Chris Wilson among the students at Hill's law school at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Although Wilson had not been in any of Hill's classes, Blackwell nevertheless advised him on how, as Wilson later put it, to go ""about the business of making Anita Hill's life a living hell.''

According to Wilson, it was Blackwell's idea to round up as many conservative students as possible and have them send faxes to Sens. Simpson and Orrin Hatch, describing any complaints they had heard about Hill. ""Morton's really incredible!'' Wilson later said. ""We faxed hundreds -- well, maybe thirty -- letters to Simpson, Hatch and Brown . . . These were the faxes Simpson was talking about -- that was us.''

A number of the letters also came from Wilson's fraternity brothers in Kappa Alpha, a white, all-male redoubt on campus. Most of these faxes concerned what the students saw as Hill's radical feminist leanings. But almost all of them were from students who had never studied with her and so had no first-hand knowledge.

While Republicans were furiously seeking out the most damaging rumors about Hill, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee were receiving unsolicited reports about Thomas's behavior -- and dithering about what to do with them. Kaye Savage, a former official in the Reagan White House, was willing to testify that the walls of Thomas's bachelor apartment were adorned with centerfolds of nude women at the time he supervised Hill. Others had also contacted the committee with information about Thomas and pornography. Even one of his supporters, Lovida Coleman, had inadvertently mentioned in a news article that Thomas had enjoyed offering detailed descriptions of dirty movies he had seen in law school.

But in a heated bipartisan meeting, Danforth threatened that if one word of testimony connecting Thomas to pornography was allowed into the public hearing room, the Republicans would air the evidence they had about Hill's private life. Danforth argued that [Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph] Biden had to let in either none of it or all of it.

Hill's potential witnesses presented a far greater threat to Thomas than anonymous former pupils did to Hill. But calling any one of them posed a risk no committee member -- and least of all the committee chairman -- wanted to take. Anger at the handling of the hearings was already causing a national outpouring of disgust. Polls were showing public support for Thomas running twice as high as it was for Hill. Taking up Hill's cause seemed a completely thankless exercise. As an aide to a Democratic member later explained, ""There was only one desire, and it was shared by every member of the committee: "Shut this damn thing down!'''

So, without dissension from the Democrats, Biden accepted the Republicans' terms: no testimony about anyone's private life would be allowed. It was the course of least resistance. It sounded fair. Biden perceived it as a victory for decency itself.

Yet while Thomas portrayed himself as an exemplar of proper employment practices and walled himself off from questions about his personal life, Hill had already been subjected to unrebutted characterizations of her private sexual behavior. In the open hearings, she had been portrayed as, among other things, a political zealot, a sexual fantasist, a scorned woman . . . and a pathological liar who had lifted bizarre details from ""The Exorcist.'' To become squeamish about personal matters at this point and to bury information that might have exonerated Hill was to tarnish her reputation and skew the result of the hearings.

But Hill's reputation was not foremost among the committee's worries. The Democrats in general, and Biden in particular, appear to have been far more concerned with their own reputations. Looking back on the hearings, Biden was somewhat defensive about this pivotal decision. He believed in the sanctity of privacy, which he believed extended to Supreme Court nominees, and he concluded that it was up to him to uphold the standards of decency. But Biden once overheard his own wife suggesting that when it came to power, he was naive. And in this instance he had acted, he later admitted, ""in fairness to Thomas, which in retrospect he didn't deserve.''