There are key differences between the possible Brett Kavanaugh showdown with accuser Christine Blasey Ford and the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas saga

  • A possible showdown between Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accuses him of drunkenly assaulting her when they were both in high school in the early 1980s, looks in many ways like the faceoff between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill in 1991.
  • If the hearing happens, it will be in front of the same committee — Senate Judiciary — with some of the same senators who were also on the panel 27 years ago.
  • But the presence of women senators on the committee, along with changes seen as a result of the #MeToo movement, make it unlikely that a Kavanaugh hearing would follow the same script as the Thomas hearing.
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 4, 2018 in Washington, DC. 
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 4, 2018 in Washington, DC. 

A possible showdown between Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaughand Christine Blasey Ford, who accuses him of drunkenly assaulting her when they were both in high school in the early 1980s, looks in many ways like the faceoff between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hillin 1991.

If the hearing happens, it will be in front of the same committee — Senate Judiciary — with some of the same senators who were also on the panel 27 years ago: Republicans Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Utah's Orrin Hatch, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

And as in 1991, a woman would be testifying about sexually related claims against a Republican president's nominee that came to light only after the initial confirmation hearings took place. Likewise, millions of Americans would be paying close attention to the televised spectacle, trying to determine who is telling the truth about disputed events that occurred years before.

Like Thomas, Kavanaugh, a federal appellate judge, is adamantly denying the claims made by his own accuser.

Hill, in an op-ed article Tuesday in The New York Times, herself wrote that "It's impossible to miss the parallels" between the two hearings.

But there are also number of big differences between the two cases that should prevent the Kavanugh-Blasey Ford hearing from being a mere echo of Thomas-Hill. And the differences could not only be in how the witnesses are treated, but also in the outcome.

Women on the committee

Unlike the Thomas-Hill hearings, there will be female senators — four Democrats — on the committee questioning Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford.

One of them, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was first elected to the Senate along with three other women in 1992. It came a year after the Thomas hearings highlighted the fact that at the time there were a mere two female senators, neither of whom were on the Judiciary Committee in 1991.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was also elected to her seat in 1992. While she is not a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she told reporters on Tuesday that she came to the Senate "because of how Anita Hill was handled."

Murray called Blasey Ford's claims against Kavanaugh "serious" and said she hopes to handle the situation "in the right way."

"Because it wasn't done in the right way with Anita Hill, and we had a generation of women who said it's not worth it coming forward," Murray added. "I do not want that to be this message today."

Many people, some of whom ran for Congress after the Thomas hearings, were outraged by how skeptically some of the male senators questioned Hill's account, as well as the subsequent confirmation of Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, had asked her: "How could [Hill] allow this kind of reprehensible behavior to go on without doing something about it?"

The #MeToo effect

Another big difference, however, will be a sea change in how sexual harassment and sexual assault are seen by many Americans.

In the past year, the #MeToo movement has accelerated that change.

Ignited by revelations of movie producer Harvey Weinstein's alleged serial assault of women, #MeToo has encouraged women to come forward with stories and accusations of rape, harassment and other forms of mistreatment by men. In turn, several high-profile men were forced out of powerful jobs due to their alleged conduct.

Hill, in her Times op-ed, wrote, "Today, the public expects better from our government than we got in 1991, when our representatives performed in ways that gave employers permission to mishandle workplace harassment complaints throughout the following decades."

A friend and neighbor of Blasey Ford told The Mercury News of San Jose, California, on Monday that she had told her of the alleged assault by Kavanaugh, without naming him, as the #MeToo movement gained additional momentum.

"I can't really think of anyone better" to answer questions from the committee, Rebecca White told The Mercury News. "She's one of those people who teems with honesty and truth."

At around the time that Blasey Ford had told White about the alleged incident with Kavanaugh, a senator, Al Franken of Minnesota, was being accused of groping and kissing women without their permission. Franken, a Democrat, eventually resigned in January.

A number of observers have pointed out that Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who both called for Franken's resignation in light of the allegations again him, still have not said whether they will confirm Kavanaugh in the face of even more serious claims against him. Murkowski on Tuesday refused to say whether Blasey Ford's allegations, if true, would disqualify Kavanaugh.

Collins and Murkowski, like several of their colleagues, have called for slowing down Kavanaugh's confirmation process in order to hear testimony from both the judge and his accuser.

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