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People Top 5
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- November 11, 1991
- Vol. 36
- No. 18
Forced to Endure Her Husband's Sexual Harassment Trial by Fire, a Virginia Thomas Speaks Out at Last
Not surprisingly, Virginia Lamp Thomas, the wife who was at Thomas's side throughout his ordeal, believes in her husband. The two are intellectual soul mates despite radically different backgrounds. Thomas, 43, was born in poverty in rural Georgia to a teenage mother and a father who abandoned him as a toddler; Virginia Lamp was brought up in Omaha, the youngest child of wealthy, well-connected parents. Her father was a real estate developer; her mother a GOP activist. Thomas attended Yale Law School; his future wife graduated from Creighton University School of Law. They share the view that women and minorities are ultimately not best served by government programs such as affirmative action.
Her faith in her husband not withstanding, Virginia Thomas has never met Anita Hill, and the incidents Hill described are alleged to have occurred from 1981 to 1983—long before Virginia Thomas met her husband in the spring of 1986. More than a dozen times in the past few weeks, PEOPLE approached Anita Hill or her representatives for her account of her unwanted time in the spotlight, but she has declined to be interviewed. In her testimony before Congress, however, Hill specifically denied any charge that she was a "scorned woman," in love with Judge Thomas and acting out of jealousy.
Recently Virginia Thomas, a 34-year-old Labor Department lawyer and lobbyist, spoke with Washington, D.C., correspondent Jane Sims Podesta. "I want to tell people about what we went through, even if Clarence can't, "she said. After a three-hour interview conducted in the kitchen of the Thomases' two-story, wood-frame house in Kingstowne, Va., Justice Thomas's black 1989 Corvette pulled into the driveway. Thomas entered the house shaking his head. "It's been brutal, just brutal," he said. "I don't know if it's over, but we found a way to survive. And we have each other."
FRANKLY, THE CONFIRMATION PROCESS was hell. We didn't have many good days, except maybe that first day, July 1, at Kennebunkport, when Bush announced the nomination. Clarence called me before he and the President went out to the press conference. We were in shock. I just said, "Wow!" We never, never imagined what lay ahead. If we had, we never would have gone through it.
We expected differences over political views but never imagined people would dig so low. At first there was this marijuana charge that evolved into a wild rumor he was doing drugs. That didn't stick, so people made up a crazy charge that he beat his first wife. Then Clarence was attacked by the black leadership for his conservative political views. That was particularly painful. But by the end of September we thought the worst was over. Wrong. It was just beginning.
I was at work at the Labor Department Sept. 25, the day Clarence got a call from the White House. "There's been a new charge leveled," someone told him, and then said they were sending the FBI out to the house to question him. When the two agents came, they said a charge of sexual harassment had been made against him by Anita Hill. He couldn't believe it. When I got home, Clarence told me his heart sank when he heard that. It was just so devastating that this person he had always helped at every turn had said this. I told him it was so outrageous it would blow over, like the other charges that had come out of the shadows. But I could tell he was killing himself inside, searching to figure out why she would do this.
What makes this whole Anita Hill thing so bizarre is that I was once sexually harassed at work—before I met Clarence. And for what that man did to me, I think Clarence could have killed him. It wasn't verbal harassment, it was physical. It was something I had put way down in the recesses of my mind, but to Clarence it was so disgusting, something that always bothered him when I told him. At Clarence's urging, I used the workplace system to alert management to the problem. He gave me the courage to go forward. "It's not about you," he said. "It's about the next woman who comes into a workplace, into an unsuspecting place. If you don't go forward, the next woman who is just as naive and trusting as you is going to fall into that very same trap."
I don't want to get into the specifics of what happened to me. But I went to management, and that got to the problem discreetly and directly. At the time, Clarence and I were just getting to know each other and dating. He knows who the individual is. How could all this happen to a man who is so intolerant of sexual harassment?
My case was also different from Hill's because what she did was so obviously political, as opposed to trying to resolve the problem. And what's scary about her allegations is that they remind me of the movie Fatal Attraction or, in her case, what I call the fatal assistant. In my heart, I always believed she was probably someone in love with my husband and never got what she wanted.
Anyhow, as I said, toward the end of the month things seemed to be calming down. I remember Sen. Joe Biden called Clarence on Sept. 27 [the day the Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked 7—7 on the Thomas nomination vote]. "Look," he said, "I respect you. I think you're a good man, and if these allegations come up, I don't think they have merit. I will be your biggest defender." (Biden now says, "I guaranteed Judge Thomas that I would be the biggest defender of his right to make his case and that he would be treated fairly. I made the same guarantee to Anita Hill.") By the following week, on Friday night [Oct. 4]. Clarence came home, and we just felt so good that everything was nearing an end. Then Saturday night it all came back. Someone called him and said that there was a story about the allegations that National Public Radio was going to report.
When Clarence heard that Anita Hill was going to have a press conference in Oklahoma on Monday [Oct. 7], I heard him say, "That's it! They can have it! I give up!" But I told him, "Clarence, don't. Slop that now. Stop." I think he realized that Anita Hill wasn't going to stop at where she was before. She was beyond coming out of the shadows. She was taking a lie to such an extreme. Afterward, I said, "She's really credible. She believes what she's saying." I believed it was a lie, but she really believed it was true. "It's like you're running a marathon," Clarence said. "You finally get to the end, and someone says, 'Oh, you didn't really finish the race. There are another three miles you have to run.
That Monday evening we spent time at the home of some friends, where we felt we were surrounded by love and understanding. Well, the phone started ringing with calls from key Republican senators wanting to give him advice. Clarence kept saying. "I want to clear my name.' Then the next day, the Senate decided to reopen hearings [on Oct. 11] on the allegations. That night Clarence had a lot of trouble getting to sleep. "Virginia," he said, "why are they trying to destroy me?" I couldn't answer him.
The Clarence Thomas I had married was nowhere to be found. He was just debilitated beyond anything I had seen in my life. About 12:45 A.M., he said, "I need you to call your two friends from your Bible-study group, and their husbands, and get them here with me in the morning to pray." Clarence knew the next round of hearings to begin that day was not the normal political battle. It was spiritual warfare. Good versus evil. We were fighting something we didn't understand, and we needed prayerful people in our lives. We needed God.
So the next morning, Wednesday, we started having these two couples in our home to pray for two or three hours every day. They brought over prayer tapes, and we would read parts of the Bible. We held hands and prayed. What got us through the next six days was God. We shut the kitchen blinds and turned on Christian praise music to survive the worst days. Sen. Jack Danforth even came out to our house to pray the first day. I told him, "Senator, there's nothing left of Clarence." He said, "This didn't have to happen. I should have done something else to keep the Senate from acting this way."
We started trying to rebuild our life. All the strategists were pushed out the door—all the handlers, these people telling Clarence what he should do and say at the next morning's hearing. He started getting real tense in the neck. He hadn't slept the last two nights. Then about 9 P.M., we got word that Clarence would be the first to talk at the hearing. I called a neighbor lady who cuts hair to come over, because Clarence hadn't had a haircut in three months. She cut his hair, gave him a head massage, and he fell asleep around 10:30.
Around 1 A.M. he woke up, went downstairs and started working. He saw all these papers with his notes about how to respond on the kitchen table and started getting really confused. I tried to be the calming influence, and I cleared the table. Then I went upstairs to turn on the computer, and by the time I came down, he was real focused. He wrote on a pad of paper, and I would type it. We worked like that until 4:30 A.M. [on Friday, Oct. 11]. Later, after two hours' sleep, we walked into the hearing room, and people were lining the hallways, urging him on. "Who are these people?" Clarence asked me, and I said, "I think they are angels."
We went in loaded for bear because we were angry and empowered. Clarence had a message: Enough is enough. This had to come to an end. He really didn't care anymore whether he got to the Supreme Court or not. The only copy of his statement was in his hands—literally hot off the printer. They had to listen to it, and they looked stunned. I looked at the committee and thought, "These little people!" They seemed so small, and our purpose seemed so great. I felt such anger and revulsion looking at some of those Senators. I was watching them, and I felt like my eyes were laser beams. They wouldn't look at me.
Clarence made his statement, and when they decided to put Anita Hill on right away, we went home. He stayed downstairs smoking a cigar and talking with a U.S. marshal who'd been driving him around. I watched some of the hearing upstairs on TV, and after I heard enough. I went down and told him about some of the charges. He just let out this big howl. He was in shock. He was holding his chest and said he'd never seen any of those charges in the FBI reports. He looked shaken, saying, "I never said those things! Why is she doing this?" I said, "I know, I know." I couldn't help my husband.
That whole week was like a nightmare. It was surreal—all those amazing things being said during the hearings on national television and attributed to my husband. He kept saying, "Why is she trying to destroy me?" He was so hurt he just couldn't watch it. I don't think he wanted to see this person he had a great deal of admiration for saying these things. His nerves were too raw. It was all too sensitive, too distorted.
Once during the hearings, when Sen. Orrin Hatch was repeating the allegations, I couldn't help but cry. Just having Clarence hear it, right there in the hearing room, was getting to me. I wanted to protect him. Afterward I asked him if he wanted to keep going. This was killing him. I worried that his blood pressure would shoot up and he'd have a stroke. But he's never been a quitter.
By the time the final Senate vote came, on Tuesday, Oct. 15, it was like we were riding this magic carpet. We had put ourselves in a different world, listening to our Christian music and staying at home and praying. Honestly, it could have gone either way, and it would have been okay. Our victory and joy had really come the Saturday before, when Clarence had finished testifying. He kept saying, "Maybe I'm not supposed to be on the Supreme Court, and God has another purpose in mind."
Early Tuesday night we had gotten calls from the White House asking us if we wanted to watch the vote with President Bush. We said no, we felt more comfortable at home. As the Senate roll was being called, Clarence went upstairs to take a shower. I called my office, and they said, "Why aren't you watching TV? He has 52 votes!" I ran upstairs to tell Clarence. He'd just gotten out of the shower, and I said, "You got 52 votes!" He kind of shrugged. It was the oddest thing. It was like, "Okay, thanks." It was as if it didn't matter anymore.
Clarence was deeply hurt by all the charges, and with each one made, I watched him really struggle. It was the personal attacks that really bothered him. First, there was the leaking of a confidential report that he had smoked marijuana in college. I remember him filling out this form at home, and he told me, "You know, I'm going to put this down. I only had one or two puffs at one point. I want to be honest and safe." Well, that evolved into people saying he was doing drugs at FEOC.
Then there were rumors that his best friend, who'd referred Anita Hill to him, was funneling women to him at EEOC for sexual purposes and that the women who testified for him had all slept with him. We just thought, Gimme a break! We were also worried that because Clarence is black and I'm white, it would bring some of the bigoted people out of the closet. I was afraid of bombs or threats, but we haven't had any trouble.
One of the first and nastiest anonymous charges from the shadows was that he beat his first wife. There is absolutely no substance to that. In fact, I have been in touch with his first wife [Kathy Thomas—they were divorced in 1984]. The three of us get along marvelously. It's very unique. She has the greatest amount of respect for Clarence. Last month the three of us went down to see Jamal [Thomas's 18-year-old son, a student at Fork Union Military Academy in Fork Union, Va.] at school.
As for Anita Hill's charges, I have my theories, but I don't have evidence. I believe the charges were politically motivated. You can tell because of the timing. We were hit with all these charges, but they didn't get him. So his opponents had to keep digging deeper and deeper. Something about Clarence, a conservative black man, must threaten an important segment of our society. We hear that people are still digging, trying to impugn his integrity. But it's over. If we keep trying to respond to such allegations, this will never be over and we can never go on with our lives as before.
We first met in the spring of 1986 at an affirmative action conference in New York City. It wasn't love at first sight. I just thought he was a powerful guy at our roundtable. Clarence was then EEOC chairman, and I was a labor-relations attorney at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We took a cab back to the airport together. He shared some of his beliefs with me, and when I got out of the cab, I said, "I have some black female friends that I'd really like to put together with you." He laughed and said, "I'm really not interested in getting involved with anybody now."
We got to know each other as professional friends, and one day he asked me out to lunch. A couple of weeks later, we went out to a movie and dinner. I left that dinner smiling like I'd never smiled. I was in love with this guy. But I had to pursue him a little. When I didn't hear from him for a while, I called and asked him if he wanted to come to my apartment pool. He did, even though I learned later he hates swimming, and then the next day he took me up to Baltimore to walk along the Inner Harbor. He says that's when he fell in love with me.
We were married next May, in 1987, back in my hometown, Omaha. I knew if there were any problems there about Clarence and me, people would get over them when they met him. And indeed we had a big celebration. Even though I grew up in a comfortable, middle-class world, I've always hurt for black America and what white America did to blacks. But Clarence taught me to go beyond that—to treat all people the way you wanted to be treated. I can now say he loves me and treats me better than I've ever hoped to be treated.
What hurts most in all this is that there are people out there who still might believe Anita Hill. My only prayer is that the truth comes out as fast as possible. I think Anita Hill was used in the sense that she never wanted her story to be public. She wanted to be one of the shadow people.
I'm coming forward to thank everyone who believed in Clarence. I hope no one else has to go through what we went through. I also hope we have set a new low, that Americans in their outrage can say, "No, there is a level at which it is disgusting, horrible and wrong." And if the Senate's not going to stand up for what is right and wrong, then the American people have to. Enough is enough.
- Jane Sims Podesta.
February 15, 2016
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