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Testimony Leaves One Question: Who's Lying? : Dilemma: Statements are so irreconcilable that nomination can survive only if Hill's credibility doesn't.

October 12, 1991|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and law professor Anita Faye Hill gave sworn testimony Friday so starkly irreconcilable that members of the Senate--and millions of other Americans--could not avoid a simple but devastatingly difficult question: Who is lying?

Thomas, eloquent in his injured defiance, "categorically denied" that he ever had asked Hill for a date or talked to her about sex. "I cannot imagine anything that I said or did to Anita Hill that could have been mistaken for sexual harassment," he said.

An hour later, Hill delivered a prepared statement that was staggering in its specificity. Among other things, she said, Thomas "spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes."

After such testimony, there seemed no way to finesse the allegations with a compromise. This could not be put down to differing interpretations of events or a regrettable misunderstanding. Thomas' nomination could survive only if Hill's seeming credibility did not.

As a result, members of the committee--almost all of them lawyers--quickly turned the hearing into the highly adversarial "trial" that they had vowed to avoid.

They bombarded Hill with the kinds of questions lawyers use to impeach, confuse and trip up witnesses in criminal trials. And, like the complaining witness in a rape trial, she became a defendant--called on to explain and justify her motives and her conduct in minute detail.

The Republicans, serving as the defense attorneys for Thomas, tried to shake Hill's testimony by suggesting that she had "fantasies" about a more personal relationship with the fast-rising chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

They suggested that she had had such fantasies before, about at least one other associate.

Why did she wait so long to go public with her accusations? Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) asked. Why did she follow Thomas from the Department of Education to the EEOC? she was asked again and again in different ways?

Because she feared retaliation, Hill said in response to the first question. And because, as a special assistant to Thomas, she might not have been kept on by his successor at the Education Department, she replied to the second.

Did she not understand that, under civil service rules, she was protected? No, she said, and President Reagan at that time was trying to abolish the entire Education Department.

Why did she maintain a "cordial" relationship with Thomas after years of allegedly abusive treatment? Because she was afraid he would retaliate, she answered.

Back and forth, through the day and into the evening, the interrogation and the answers continued. The Democrats, apparently afraid of appearing partisan, only occasionally rose to Hill's defense.

As an explosive face-to-face clash over who was telling the truth, the scene recalled the 1948 hearing in which Whittaker Chambers charged ex-State Department official Alger Hiss with being a closet communist.

But times have certainly changed. If a person's communist sympathies were the most personal of secrets in the politics of the late 1940s, even sex was not entirely private in the politics of the 1990s.

Later Friday night, it was Thomas' turn to answer questions, and he immediately went on the offensive, calling the hearing a "travesty" that "should never occur in America." And he suggested that his attackers were motivated by racism. "From my standpoint as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks," he said.

Under solicitous questioning by Republican Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Thomas repeated his unqualified denial of Hill's allegations. And, although professing himself baffled as to her motives, he gently suggested that she may have been disgruntled at failing to win a promotion while on his staff, that she sometimes had temper tantrums and that an aide had once warned him she was his "enemy"--a suggestion that, he said, he had loyally dismissed out of hand.

Faced with such testimony, how could the senators, or the millions watching on television, decide who was telling the truth?

Congressional committees rarely face such directly contradictory testimony, but judges and jurors do in courtrooms every day. And criminal law experts say that jurors rely on three means of judging the truth: the demeanor of the witnesses, the detail of their testimony and their motivations for telling the truth.

Both Thomas and Hill spoke with the demeanor of truthful witnesses. Both described themselves as the real victims of the bitter controversy.

During his five days of testimony in mid-September, Thomas often seemed hesitant and uncertain as he discussed his legal views. But, in his opening statement Friday, he spoke with force and emotion as he angrily denied Hill's allegations.

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