Washington Week

Friday Nights on PBS

Shocker Then, Shocker Now

I got the chance to get a sneak peek at HBO's upcoming docudrama on the 1991 Hill-Thomas hearings, when college professor Anita Hill nearly derailed George H.W. Bush's nomination of federal appeals court Judge Clarence Thomas to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

I betray no confidentiality and provide no spoiler as I write about this now. Although the film "Confirmation," starring Kerry Washington as Hill and Wendell Pierce as Thomas, does not premiere until April 16, we all know how it ends.

Thomas has now served nearly a quarter-century on the nation’s highest court, while Hill has retreated to academia and a career as an advocate for women's rights.

But at the time that she challenged Thomas' nomination on grounds that he had sexually harassed her when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, no one had ever seen anything like it before.

The Democratically-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee delayed a floor vote on Thomas' confirmation -- after it had already approved him on a party line vote -- to hold additional hearings that dragged into the wee hours of the night.

Newscasters warned viewers to keep their children away from the coverage -- which included references to genitalia and pornography -- and the rest of us watched it unfold slack-jawed.

Add to that the spectacle of watching a black woman challenge a black man in front of a panel comprised entirely of middle-aged to elderly white men (chaired by now-Vice President Joe Biden), and we were all glued to our television sets.

The HBO retelling is faithful to this history. And watching it decades later, and in the midst of a crazed presidential campaign, it still overwhelms.

It is mind-boggling to imagine the Hill-Thomas showdown played out in the Twitter era. Would it have ended differently?

Justice Thomas does not do much talking to the press, but I had the chance to ask Hill that question, as she made herself available to talk about the HBO film.

"It would be quite different today," she told me on the NewsHour. "But I think that the issues are such that it wouldn’t go away."

"Quite different" is certainly an understatement. At a time when a debate about the correct way to eat pizza or use a New York City subway MetroCard can consume an entire news cycle, just imagine what the Hill-Thomas hearings would do to us.

But for an entire generation of people under the age of perhaps 30 who did not witness them first-hand, it’s worth watching even a fictionalized version of the story to be reminded of what we can be.