Wednesday, September 26, 2018


Ross Douthat recalls Bill Clinton and Clarence Thomas:
I’ll talk about the two great sex-and-politics tangles of my adolescence, the Bill Clinton and the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill scandals.

I grew up with Northeastern liberals, went to high school with Northeastern liberals, attended college with Northeastern liberals, and so most people that I knew in my teens and 20s maintained two firm convictions: Bill Clinton was just a consensual philanderer railroaded by awful puritanical Republicans, and Hill was obviously telling the truth and Thomas was obviously a pornography-obsessed sexual harasser.

At the same time from late adolescence onward I identified as a conservative, wrote as a conservative in college and hung out with conservatives in Washington, which meant that I was frequently in worlds where Clinton was regarded as a predator and likely rapist who deserved to be impeached and where Thomas’s innocence and Hill’s duplicity were articles of faith.
He's building up to his main argument: that being a well-informed partisan leads to a foolish certainty on such matters. But there's another conclusion to be drawn from this, and from what's happened since. Douthat nearly grasps it, but then veers away from it.

He writes:
... with time and social change and the Trump-era partisan reversal on the question of presidential character, the near absolute certainty that so many serious, thoughtful liberals once held about Bill Clinton has weakened, even crumbled — not to the point where the liberal consensus is willing to forgive Ken Starr, but to a point where many liberals are willing to admit that Clinton might well have raped Juanita Broaddrick (an event for which there is far more contemporaneous evidence than has yet emerged in the Kavanaugh case), and that if he did so it casts a rather different light on the other allegations that they once dismissed as ginned-up partisan hit jobs.
Yes, there are liberals who are now willing to concede that Broaddrick's story was plausible, most notably Douthat's colleague Michelle Goldberg. The Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey stories seem a bit hinky to some of us now as well. And Ted Kennedy's history with women also makes some liberals queasy.

But I don't know of a single conservative who's ever had second thoughts about Clarence Thomas. The point of Douthat's column is that certainty in such matters is for partisan fools, but he mostly doubts Thomas's accusers:
The key weakness of the pro-Hill liberal consensus is that its presentation, then and now, tends to make it sound as if Thomas could have been a #MeToo case like so many recent ones (Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, etc.), with multiple credible allegations spilling out, if only the men on the Senate Judiciary Committee had been willing to call three other victims who would testify to his harassing ways.

But in fact only one of those three women, Angela Wright, was actually alleging harassment; the second was confirming that Wright had told her that Thomas hit on her, the third was alleging generally that Thomas created a created a sexualized atmosphere at work — a claim contested by 12 other female witnesses who had worked with him. And Wright was not a particularly credible witness. Even Mayer and Abramson conceded that “her files contained ample ammunition for anyone trying to embarrass her,” including a checkered workplace history in which she was fired by a congressman’s office, resigned from a State Department job and immediately accused her boss of racism, and then was fired by Thomas himself for poor performance, after which she reportedly told a friend that she was “pissed” and wanted “to get him back.”

Which doesn’t mean that she was necessarily lying when she claimed Thomas had made persistent and sometimes lewd advances; it just means that she was not some slam-dunk, Hill-vindicating witness, but someone whose testimony would have raised lots of reasonable doubts.

The same problems attach to other testimonies. When Abramson revisited the Thomas case earlier this year for New York Magazine, she pointed to two other female witnesses who could confirm Thomas’s penchant for inappropriate remarks. But one’s account surfaced secondhand, and the witness herself immediately issued a statement that “she never experienced any type of inappropriate behavior.” The other, Thomas’s girlfriend at the time of the Hill case, offered her stories — which were mostly about general lasciviousness rather than harassment — nearly two decades later while shopping a memoir and expressing irritation with Thomas’s conservative record on the bench.

But does all of this add up to a clear vindication of Thomas? No, I don’t think so. There were weaknesses in Hill’s testimony but no clear motive for such a dramatic fabrication, Mayer and Abramson found witnesses from Thomas’s workplace who had heard about the famous “pubic hair on a Coke” can line that he denied uttering, there was plausible testimony as well [as] hearsay that he had a pornography habit of some sort ... I could go on.

My own sense, when I wade back into the “he said, she said” detail, is that neither of their testimonies were entirely believable, and that there’s some missing piece of the story that may never come to light.
I guess that counts as doubt, but it's barely that. There's certainly no one on the right willing to write a column titled "I Believe Anita." Goldberg's column about Broaddrick was titled "I Believe Juanita.")

Douthat writes:
... any mystification or bafflement or anger that you feel about someone else’s certainty — how it simply must be cynical, manufactured, malign — should be tempered by a recognition that your own certainty might have to be revised 20 years from now....
But no one on the right will ever reconsider Brett Kavanaugh twenty years from now. Maybe a future Douthat, a right-centrist writing for a liberal audience, will acknowledge that Kavanaugh might not have told the whole truth. But once most right-wingers are dug in, they stay dug in. They never back down.

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