Opinion

Brett Kavanaugh Isn’t Clarence Thomas, but It’s Still About Race

Black and brown kids don’t get their slates wiped clean

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, left, has urged his colleagues to see past sexual assault allegations and consider who Brett Kavanaugh “is today.” But only certain folks get their slates wiped clean, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Orrin G. Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah, is nothing if not consistent.

His words about distinguished lawyer and professor Anita Hill in 1991 — when she testified in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings before the Judiciary Committee on which he sat — were clear. He said there was “no question” in his mind that she was “coached” by special interest groups. “Her story’s too contrived. It’s so slick it doesn’t compute.” Hatch mused she may have cribbed some of her testimony from the novel “The Exorcist” — the horror!

And when considering current nominee Brett Kavanaugh — sitting, as Thomas was, on the verge of a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court — Hatch had this to say about professor Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when she was 15 and he 17: “I think she’s mistaking something. But I don’t know, I mean, I don’t know her.”

He also said of Kavanaugh: “I think it would be hard for senators to not consider who the judge is today. That’s the issue. Is this judge a really good man? And he is. And by any measure he is.”

You can count on Hatch for certain opinions, although you also can question them, as when he pretty much maligned all New Yorkers in defense of Donald Trump’s past and often present behavior. “He comes from New York City; he comes from a slam-bang, difficult world,” Hatch said of the president. “It is amazing he is as good as he is.”

I’ll pass the word to my 96-year-old mother-in-law in the Bronx.

Watch: Hirono on Kavanaugh Accusation — Men Need to “Shut Up and Step Up”

Who gets to be a kid?

As Hatch serves his final Senate term before retiring, the landscape — of the Senate’s and society’s consideration of sexual harassment and assault — has moved on. But has it changed enough to make a difference in how this familiar scene plays out?

We may or may not see in the next week.

Ford, perhaps remembering how Hill was treated, has insisted on an FBI investigation into the charges before she subjects herself to the committee’s scheduled Monday hearing and public review. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has questioned her decision to hire a lawyer and take a polygraph. But considering how Hill was accused of being delusional and vindictive, who wouldn’t? She has reportedly received threats and online harassment that make her initial reluctance all too understandable.

Kavanaugh, whose devotion to his daughters is part of his public profile, is probably living through his own nightmare, and has said he is eager to testify, to defend himself, as Thomas did.

[Kavanaugh Is Already Reshaping the Supreme Court]

This time the issue of race is not sitting in the foreground. In 1991, Clarence Thomas’s seething description of his “high-tech lynching” shook the all-white, all-male panel and its chairman, then Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, who has since said he owed Hill an apology for allowing her reputation and integrity to be trashed, and for his failure to call witnesses ready to support Hill’s story. (Black women might have been used to that disrespect, but it was still plenty reprehensible.)

In the background, though, race looms still, in how the life and worth of anyone accused is framed. Kavanaugh has denied anything happened, though oddly, some of his defenders add an “if,” and refer to the kind of man the judge has become.

While the tendency is to relegate anything that may or may not have happened 30-plus years ago to a category of youthful hijinks or acting out “under the influence,” that only applies to certain folks. Those breaks, that benefit of the doubt and eagerness to wipe the slate clean, elude black and brown children and teens such as Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin, always expected to have known better before on-the-spot and often fatal “justice” is meted out.

Calculating the risks

The #MeToo movement has brought down powerful men, with some of them probably disappointed that they didn’t get the pass they had counted on in the past. But Congress is still wrestling with how to reconcile legislation that would deal with sexual harassment charges within its ranks on Capitol Hill.

The makeup of the Judiciary Committee is blessedly a bit more diverse than it was in 1991; that is due to the four Democratic women on the panel. Though the GOP lineup in this age of Trump still reflects its leader — white and male and, for the most part, older — the president has been more restrained than usual in responding to the snag that has momentarily stalled his second conservative Supreme Court justice. Trump did say Kavanaugh “is such an outstanding man, it is very hard for me to imagine anything happened.”

A lot is at stake for both parties, politically. Suburban women voters, the GOP’s Achilles’ heel, will be crucial in the midterms, and a record number of women are running. The party does not want to do anything to anger them or give them a reason to stay home. Many conservatives who voted for Trump because they wanted conservative judges on the courts may be disappointed if Trump abandons Kavanaugh as too politically risky. Or will that anger spur them to turn out to tamp down a possible blue wave?

[Women and Men Disagree on Kavanaugh After Sexual Assault Allegation]

Judge Merrick Garland, left waiting as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell played hardball politics (and won) with his Supreme Court nomination by President Obama, is probably wondering, along with many other Americans, what the rush is when an important, lifetime appointment hangs in the balance.

Blood sport may yet trump #MeToo in 2018, with those on either side of the Kavanaugh nomination more entrenched than ever — even with advice from Anita Hill — decades after 1991 was supposed to change how Congress and the world work.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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