At Stake in Anita Hill Movie: Joe Biden’s Legacy
New HBO Film Paints Biden as Failing to Call Key Witness
“The People versus O.J. Simpson” might’ve garnered more mainstream attention, but Clarence Thomas’ 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings are an underrated political and cultural event of the ‘90s. Aside from the obvious stakes (a lifetime Supreme Court seat) and controversial issues raised (allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace), it also served as a defining moment for an emerging generation of liberals and conservatives. It was that hearing (along with talk radio) that helped guide a young liberal kid named Andrew Breitbart onto a course that would culminate in his becoming one of the most important conservative voices in the new media.
It’s not surprising, then, that HBO would release a new dramatization titled, Confirmation , 25 years after the hearings (airing Saturday night). Controversy abounds, as usual (see HBO’s Game Change
— or any political biopic). Republicans are often the sole victims of political productions, but — according to insiders who have seen the film or early script versions — this one could also tarnish the legacy of at least one prominent Democrat, Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
In the trailer (so we can be reasonably sure they’re in the final film), Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear) is shown saying: “You got me bringing up a bunch of bogus dirt!” Meanwhile, Anita Hill (Kerry Washington) is presented saying: “They don’t care; they only want to win.”
Another HBO promotional video shows Biden worrying about his image: “I do not wanna go after this guy [Thomas] on a sex charge … this is exactly the kind of thing I hate. And what if she’s lying? Then you got me bringing up a bunch of bogus dirt, and I’m the bad guy in all this!”
These biopics usually do the most damage in tone and affect; the bad guys dress in black, wear menacing looks, and use vulgar language while ominous music plays. One doesn’t need to pay too much attention to get the message that politicians/conservatives/businessmen/Christians, etc. are “bad” — while the sympathetic victims are purely angelic.
But the real questionable case against Biden is the substantive allegation that, as head of the Judiciary Committee, he refused to call witnesses, including Angela Wright, the “other woman” who had previously been fired by Thomas.
The trouble is that this narrative doesn’t jibe with a letter he and Wright both signed at the time , which stressed his “preference” for her to testify, and concluded with the words: “I wish to make clear, however, that if you want to testify at the hearing in person, I will honor that request.”
Wright, for her part, said she was subpoenaed against her will to testify, sat in a lawyer’s office in D.C. for three days and was bewildered when Biden’s office called to dismiss her. Three years after the event, Wright told The Washington Post that she was tired of being “jerked around for three days.”
Republicans were less charitable in their memories of Wright. According to Hollywood Reporter , Retired Missouri Sen. John Danforth wrote the following in a memo about the HBO film: “You portray Angela Wright as a corroborating witness who is bullied against testifying by ‘unethical’ tactics of Republican senators. This is not true.”
And retired Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson told the same outlet that “HBO says Angela Wright is the great second coming who we wouldn’t allow to testify, but she was plenty flawed … She wanted revenge. I thought, ‘Bring her on. I’d love to cross-examine her.’”
Was Biden trying to avoid the negative questions that would come Wright’s way, or did he want to avoid the messiness of a prolonged hearing?
Here’s the thing: Anita Hill still blames Joe Biden. In a recent interview with Time
, she said that she has not talked to Biden since the hearing, adding: “I did expect that the chair would be fair and gather the testimony from the relevant witnesses, like the three women who were not called in to testify, like the experts on sexual harassment that could have helped inform the committee about how the problem manifests itself.”
For years, conservatives have lamented revisionist portrayals, partly because of their effectiveness at re-framing history. Young people might not remember JFK or Nixon, so their first introduction to the “truth” might come, say, from Oliver Stone. That’s the danger of letting inaccuracies go unchallenged, and of allowing liberals to dominate the Hollywood culture.
By the same token, filmmakers should be granted some artistic license. Nobody ever knows precisely what is said behind closed doors, so every movie that is “based on a true story” takes a certain amount of liberties. Additionally, some of the complaints or concerns — indeed some of the things in the trailer — might ultimately be edited out of the final version that appears on HBO on Saturday night.
The real problem hinges on whether the film unfairly assassinates the character of Joe Biden. You’ll have to tune in to see.