DOUBTING THOMAS: Why now? What, after almost twenty years, prompted Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to leave a message on Brandeis professor Anita Hill’s office voicemail asking her to apologize for accusing Justice Thomas of sexual harassment during his 1991 confirmation hearings?
The timing was interesting. Ginni Thomas placed her call to Hill the morning after the New York Times reported that Virginia Thomas’s new Liberty Central organization accepted “large, unidentified contributions” totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those untraceable dollars came in the flood of right-wing funding following the Citizens United campaign finance decision, in which Justice Thomas voted with the majority. The Times reported that a wide range of legal ethicists said Liberty Central’s financing raises “knotty questions” about a conflict of interest for Justice Thomas.
Did this accusation heat up the rankling sense of persecution both Thomases feel about Hill’s old charge? To understand the connection between these two episodes it’s necessary to scrape away some of the mythology that has grown up around Thomas’s confirmation. The issue in 1991 wasn’t just the vicious and crude sexual bullying Hill ascribed to Thomas, who had been her boss in the Reagan administration’s Education Department and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The issue was perjury: was he lying under oath?
It is now nearly forgotten that Thomas’s ethics record gave Hill’s accusation traction. Briefly a federal appeals judge, and before that a Reagan operative charged with undercutting civil rights enforcement, Thomas had a long habit of telling untruthful stories. As the late civil rights scholar Haywood Burns, dean of the law school at City University of New York, testified during the ’91 hearings before Hill’s accusations surfaced, Thomas’s testimony and record were marked by “a lack of candor, compassion and ethical judgment.”
Reporting to Congress as head of the EEOC, Thomas misrepresented his agency’s nonenforcement of age discrimination law. As a federal judge he sat on an appeals court review of the criminal conviction of Col. Oliver North, despite having spoken out in support of North’s actions in the Iran/Contra scandal. He failed to recuse himself from a case involving his political patron, Senator John Danforth.
To score points, Thomas even lied about his sister: falsely describing her in speeches as pathetically welfare dependent, a mocking depiction utterly at odds with the proud and hard existence of a woman who worked a series of minimum-wage jobs for most of her life to support her family.
Perhaps Ginni Thomas’s phone call was a smoke screen—an attempted distraction from the reporting on Liberty Central’s funding. Maybe it was unrelated. Either way, twenty years later it bears remembering that Hill’s accusations were not just a matter of “she said, he said.” Hill, in 1991, testified as a credible witness of unquestioned probity. Thomas had a documented ethics problem then—and, it appears, an ongoing ethics problem now. Back then, Thomas’s truth problem obscured his shameful role in undoing the very civil rights tradition that made his nomination possible. Today, the Thomases’ evocation of that old episode obscures an ethically challenged Supreme Court justice complicit in handing American politics over to corporations and anonymous far-right donors—that is the real scandal. BRUCE SHAPIRO
RAÚL ON THE ROPES: When Arizona’s legislature and governor embraced crudely anti-immigrant politics—with a “show us your papers” law that targets ethnic and racial minorities—Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva did not take the easy route of meek objection. He supported legal challenges to the law, but he also went to the streets as a noisy and unapologetic critic of what he described in a letter to President Obama as “a dangerous and mean spirited law that improperly imposes state law upon Federal prerogatives.” Grijalva spoke at rallies, marched with immigrants and told Obama, “I call on your leadership to challenge, in any way possible, this unconstitutional and discriminatory law. I urge you to make clear that the Federal Government will not participate in any way in the enforcement of this law or cooperate with the state of Arizona in its implementation and execution.”
But courage can be costly. Grijalva’s Republican challenger, Ruth McClung, has used the immigration issue to raise major “moneybomb” support from anti-immigrant activists nationwide. The National Republican Congressional Committee has swooped in to support her. But Grijalva is getting a strong push from Progressive Democrats of America and unions that are organizing bilingual get-out-the-vote campaigns. He has developed smart messages about shared concerns like the threat to Social Security and other popular programs, while also running as a progressive who is not afraid to speak up for civil rights and civil liberties. JOHN NICHOLS
MURDOCH’S CHALLENGE: In the next few weeks, Britain’s secretary of state for business, Vince Cable, will make a decision that will influence the nation’s media landscape for years to come. Should Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp be allowed to buy the remaining 61 percent share of BSkyB, the cable television company that controls more than three-fifths of all residential cable subscriptions in the country?
In an unprecedented move, a coalition of news organizations, including the BBC, the Daily Mail and the Guardian, drafted a letter outlining their fears of a decline in accountability and a lack of media pluralism. British tabloids and liberal broadsheets are normally archenemies, but unusual compromises are being made as Murdoch seeks further reach in broadcasting—in addition to the 37 percent of newspaper readership he already commands. Even Martin Wolf of the conservative Financial Times is opposed, stating that Murdoch’s “mixture of popular entertainment with right-wing populism has proved extraordinarily successful. But it has also helped destroy the middle-ground in American politics.”
The BBC will suffer budget cuts as part of the government’s austerity agenda, and smaller organizations are hemorrhaging money as the appetite for print journalism declines. The last thing Britain needs under weakened media is a homegrown Fox News. JENNIFER O’MAHONY