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Senators' Private Deal Kept '2nd Woman' Off TV : Thomas: Democrats feared Republican attacks on Angela Wright's public testimony. Biden's handling of the hearing is criticized.

October 17, 1991|DOUGLAS FRANTZ and SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Sunday evening, as a second woman was preparing to testify that Judge Clarence Thomas also had made unpleasant sexual remarks to her, Senate Republicans and Democrats reached a private agreement that kept the woman off national television.

The compromise meant that Angela Wright, who had been fired by Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, did not provide the testimony that Oklahoma law professor Anita Faye Hill's supporters had deemed crucial to buttressing her credibility. Instead, the transcript of a Senate staff interview of Wright was released to reporters late that night and received little attention.

Republicans counted the compromise as a victory in their attempt to isolate Hill and raise doubts about her character and motives. Democrats said that the decision not to require Wright's public testimony was the result of time constraints and concern about Republican threats to attack her.

The episode raises questions both about the aggressive, gloves-off Republican strategy and the caution exercised by Democrats under the leadership of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), whose handling of the hearing is being criticized by some members of his own party as too soft in the wake of Tuesday's vote confirming Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The Republicans ran a three-day version of the Willie Horton ad about Anita Hill," said Bob Shrum, a Democratic political consultant, referring to the black prison inmate whose furlough became a heated issue in the 1988 presidential campaign of Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts. "They went to war and, with few exceptions, the Democrats kept pleading for peace."

Another example cited by a top Republican as a victory for the Thomas backers came Friday when Republicans persuaded Biden to allow Thomas to appear a second time that day. In his second appearance, Thomas offered a point-by-point rebuttal of Hill's charges.

"This gave us the newspapers the next morning, with an item-by-item denial," the GOP strategist said.

It also illustrated what some critics now consider a disastrous policy of fairness by Biden and fellow committee Democrats that allowed Republican senators, with the help of the White House and Justice Department, to orchestrate an effective defense of Thomas.

For instance, these critics complained about Biden's interruption of Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) after Hill had told Brown that she and Thomas had discussed Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision making abortion legal. Thomas testified last month that he had never discussed the case, but Biden ruled the matter out of bounds in the questioning of Hill.

Several staff members and Democratic consultants said that committee Democrats were provided with tough questions for Thomas and the four women who spoke on his behalf Sunday, but that they did not use the material.

From the day in September that Hill's allegations of sexual harassment by Thomas surfaced, Biden adopted a cautious approach, some Senate staff members said. Many Democrats believe that Biden was reluctant to delve into the unpleasant charges because of the challenge to his own integrity in 1987 when he was accused of plagiarism as a Democratic presidential candidate.

But a spokesman for Biden contends that the senator was simply being fair; his job was to conduct a hearing, not prosecute a case, he said. At her press conference on Oct. 7, after her statement was leaked to the press, Hill indicated that she believed that the Judiciary Committee staff had not actively pursued her allegations and said that she had had to telephone them several additional times after she was contacted originally.

On Oct. 8, Mark Schwartz, a Judiciary Committee staff member, heard that Wright, a former EEOC employee working at the Charlotte Observer, had written a column supporting Hill's accusations, according to transcripts of an interview with Wright by committee staffers.

Schwartz telephoned Wright, an editor at the North Carolina paper, and asked about the column. Wright said that it was a sample effort as part of a tryout to become a columnist and refused to give it to him. However, Wright agreed to discuss her own allegations about Thomas with the committee staff.

On the morning of Oct. 10, with the Thomas hearings scheduled to reopen the next day, Wright was interviewed by telephone by Senate staff members from both parties. She insisted that the interview begin with her explanation that, like Hill, she had not come forward on her own, but had been contacted by the committee staff.

Wright described several instances in which Thomas had made sexual remarks to her and said that he had once stopped by her apartment uninvited and stayed until past midnight. She claimed that he pressured her to go out with him and once asked her breast size.

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