While Joe Biden answered questions during an event at Glamour's Women of the Year summit on Monday, one reporter raised the question of his role in how Anita Hill was treated during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee back in 1991, Biden presided over Hill's testimony. When asked whether the former vice president would do things differently today, Biden apologized for Hill's ordeal during Thomas' hearing, and emphasized that he voted against his confirmation. Biden also said he was "so sorry if she [Hill] believes" she'd been denied fair treatment.
The past year has marked an undeniable shift in the way America reacts to allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, after nearly two dozen high-profile men have lost their careers following allegations of their misconduct being made public. The growing consensus that women deserve to be believed has cast events of the past in a different light too.
For some, that's included a reexamination of Anita Hill's treatment during her Senate testimony alleging that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. At the time, Thomas vehemently denied "each and every single allegation" of sexual misconduct against him.
Rachel Miller, BuzzFeed lifestyle editor, asked Biden if, given this new context:
I'm wondering if there's anything that you would do differently with regards to Anita Hill, if given the opportunity?
Biden responded by reiterating that he believed Hill and voted against Thomas. In an apparent attempt to address criticism that Biden had failed to call additional witnesses against Thomas, Biden claimed:
The only issue in the Anita Hill case was whether or not there could be information submitted in a record without a name attached to it, anonymously accusing someone of something.
Three other women had leveled similar allegations at Thomas, but they were not called up as live witnesses.
Biden's handling of Hill's testimony has its fair share of detractors. Amongst those who have criticized how the hearings played out is Hill herself. In a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post, Hill said Biden's management of the process did a "disservice to [her] and, more importantly, a disservice to the public."
Specifically, Hill pointed to Biden's decision not to call three other witnesses against Thomas. In Hill's view, having those other women share their stories could have "helped the public to understand sexual harassment."
She's not the only one disappointed — Charles Ogletree, who represented Hill through her Senate testimony, told POLITICO he was "shocked and dismayed" by the questions Biden asked Hill. "The point is that he's supposed to be neutral, but his questions to Anita Hill were as piercing as anyone's," Ogletree said.
Biden's treatment of Hill during her Senate testimony also came up after he announced his exploration of a 2016 presidential run. Some believed Biden seemed too keen on giving Thomas the benefit of the doubt, and memories of how he allowed Hill's hearing to run were not forgotten. Responding to a then-interview Biden gave to The Huffington Post, Kit Smith of the "I Believe Anita Hill" group criticized what she saw as self-congratulations for bringing sexual harassment into the national discussion. "He's trying to show, 'I'm a hero,' before anybody can say, 'You screwed up,'" Smith told POLITICO.
It's a critique echoed in the recent film adaptation Confirmation. The dramatization of Hill's Senate testimony does not paint Biden in a positive light. As Dahlia Lithwick observes at Slate, "In the end, Joe Biden, then-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and the Democrats who failed her come out looking almost as bad as the Republicans who call her names."
Not everyone agrees with this judgment. Biden's counsel during the Senate Judiciary hearings, Cynthia Hogan, said part of the misperception of the former vice president comes from a misunderstanding of the process itself. "Then-Sen. Biden felt that he had an obligation to try to sit in a neutral position as chair, and that was his priority — presenting a fair hearing," Hogan told POLITICO.
For his part, though Biden has expressed regret for Hill's view of her treatment and lauded her "courage" in coming forward, he has not actually apologized for how he handled Hill's testimony. It would seem that Biden does not believe he played the role others say he did in contributing to the mistreatment of Hill during her testimony against Thomas.