What the Writers Saw

I say HAR-ass-ment. You say ha-RASS-ment. Let’s call the whole thing off.

What’s worth remembering is that even before Joseph Biden’s gavel reopened the Clarence Thomas hearings, conventional wisdom had it that the wheels were coming off America. That’s the message newscaster Ed Bradley brought last week to the annual Better Government Association dinner. A couple of days later the New York Review of Books arrived with a piece by economist Robert Heilbroner that began like this:

“At the apparent zenith of its triumph, its enemies confounded, America seems headed for disaster. What may seem a hyperbole is only to repeat what I hear on every side. The country is visibly decaying. I do not know of anyone who sees a bright future for it.”

To tell the truth, we don’t know anyone, either. Do you?

Given how depressed the country felt already, it was inevitable that the Hill-Thomas confrontation would be portrayed not simply as sickening in and of itself but as virtually the ultimate degradation, the point at which it was right to wonder, can the country sink any lower than this? Maybe if America had been on a roll, if we’d won a war yesterday instead of last February, the nation would have hailed itself for its steely look into its own soul. That’s not what happened.

The Sun-Times editorial page spoke of “halting the plunge of political discourse in this country into anything-goes venality and mendacity.” George Will spoke of a city, Washington, “becoming increasingly carnivorous as it becomes decreasingly serious about governance.” The Tribune’s William Neikirk explained that “the ugly, tawdry nature of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing flows from an increasingly polluted American political stream that thrives on scandal and personal attack and diverts attention from pressing national problems.” Russell Baker observed that “Washington is having a nervous breakdown. It has been coming for a long time. The hysteria about the Thomas nomination is not the cause of it, just the final bursting of the dam when all restraints collapse and howling replaces civil discourse, telling us something is terribly wrong.”

Of course, the fault could be in the stars. Ronald Reagan warned us about the millennium–that’s when chaos reigns. But what’s interesting about this millennium is that it’s arrived earlier in some places than in others. It must have felt pretty millennial to deep-south gentry mourning the passing of civil discourse in the 50s and 60s when for the first time black men laid charges against white men that had to be taken seriously. Now the whirlwind we’re reaping has to do with a woman’s case against a man that leaked out of the back room.

Journalism on the Thomas-Hill hearings was–appropriately–all over the map. Writers saw what they wanted to see. A common first reaction, however, was that no good would come of this. The Tribune reacted to Anita Hill’s “11th hour” emergence by urging the Senate to ignore her. “The crucial facts about Clarence Thomas were known before this charge came to light,” said an editorial that called the charge “sensational and serious” yet not “particularly persuasive.” The Tribune said, “It would be a shame if a lurid, last-minute accusation were to deprive the country of his service on the Supreme Court.”

Over at the Sun-Times the sharp liberal columnist Carole Ashkinaze also was troubled by the timing. “Those who say this looks like a last-ditch attempt to sandbag Thomas have a point,” she wrote. “If so, it threatens to backfire, and the senators may as well go ahead and vote. There are plenty of other grounds for rejecting Thomas, if they wish.”

Thomas would call the charge of sexual harassment “beyond McCarthyism.” If a lie, it was certainly a Big Lie, a lie so vast it insisted on being at least half believed. Joseph McCarthy, however, freely trampled the innocent from 1950 to 1954. Within a week after Hill’s complaint surfaced publicly, she sat before the Judiciary Committee under oath–as did Thomas, who got to speak directly to the nation on prime time, unbadgered and uninterrupted, and denounce his “Kafkaesque” persecution. McCarthy’s victims, not to mention K. himself, found themselves in far less negotiable nightmares.

On the eve of the new hearings, the Tribune predicted “only further debasement.” Yet even while calling Thomas a “victim of the Senate confirmation process,” the Tribune now allowed that “if Thomas did engage in such harassment . . . it ought to be disqualifying.” Joan Beck wrote that Thomas’s enemies “have finally found the rope they need to string him up. Guilty or not, it doesn’t matter.” Yet almost half her column was devoted to the evils of sexual harassment.

Contradiction ran rampant. The Tribune’s editorial page wrung its hands. But on page one Janet Cawley wrote vividly, nearly gleefully, of “a shift and a shudder that was almost palpable” in the Senate–“what has been termed the most exclusive gentlemen’s club in the world.” And Mike Royko was suggesting that both parties strap themselves to polygraphs and warning Thomas that “a lie detector machine doesn’t give a hoot about your grandpa.”

Or consider Arlen Specter’s treatment at the hands of last Monday’s New York Times. An editorial took him to task: The senator, “insisting he was not being “adversarial,’ recklessly accused Professor Hill of perjury for fencing with him on a peripheral issue.” On the next page William Safire hailed Specter for digging in: “But when asked by Senator Arlen Specter . . . if anyone had told her of this plan to quietly pressure the target to quit–in effect, blackmail–she lied, and lied again, and lied a third time.” (Safire bought whole cloth the Republican theory that Thomas was–in Safire’s words–“the victim of a late hit by a self-deluded person manipulated by a conspiracy of character assassins.”)

Abutting Safire’s column was another by Anthony Lewis, who said “It is obvious that the Republicans are out to destroy Anita Hill, right or wrong.” To Lewis, “Specter has acted as the hatchet man, coming on like a mean small-town prosecutor. He found sinister meaning everywhere.”

Whatever Specter was finding out, it wasn’t what happened ten years ago. Nobody got close to that. It turned out to be as Senator Alan Simpson predicted during the weekend, “We will not get to the truth in this process.” Like other Republicans, Simpson took the line that even if Thomas’s name was not cleared it would mean nothing, for the process was incapable of clearing it.

By contrast, Simpson proclaimed, “There is a truth out there in the judicial system. Thank God for that system! It has saved many a disillusioned individual from the stygian pits.”

What a sweet thought! But among the several good reasons why grown-ups come to a faith in God is the need to believe that somebody, somewhere really understands what happens. Epistemologically, trials aren’t that different from Senate hearings. The search for truth usually breaks down into a search for whatever can be most comfortably regarded as truth, which is whatever makes it easiest for life to go on as usual. Would it be more troubling to affirm Clarence Thomas or to reject him? The answer to that question changed with every witness. The sparring senators played to an agnostic nation’s sense of propriety.

It’s Striking Time Again

Every three years or so the Sun-Times stands at the abyss. Management and the Chicago Newspaper Guild enter negotiations that go poorly, the Guild members authorize a strike, the minute hand in the newsroom stands a tick away from a general walkout. TV crews descend on the paper, and readers and advertisers alike wonder: Will the Sun-Times survive? Then the impasse is broken. Language is concocted that both sides agree to live with.

In 1988 management made one big mistake. After negotiating without a contract from May 31 into the first week in December, the Guild accepted a new three-year pact retroactive only to September 30. When this contract expired at the end of last month the Guild faced an easy choice: keep negotiating the usual few months before threatening to walk out in the dead of winter, or threaten to walk out now, while the paper’s trying to line up its Christmas advertising.

“It’s time to cut to the chase,” a Guild spokesman told us early this week. “I think we’ll be cutting to the chase real quickly.” A federal mediator already has stepped in and settled some fringe issues. He’ll have a lot more trouble getting the Guild to buy the company’s idea of a 40-month contract–which would run to January of 1995. The usual 36 months strikes the Guild as just fine.

As always, the two sides are far apart on salaries. Management, noting the Sun-Times is a straitened paper in straitened times, last offered a 12-month freeze on wages and benefits and widely spaced 2 percent increases after that. The Guild wants annual wage increases of 4.5, 5.5, and 7 percent.

Both sides are preparing for a strike that neither, in its heart, probably expects. The other day we talked to a local free-lance writer who’d been offered a $1,000-a-week reporting job at the Sun-Times if the Guild went out.

This writer eventually said no. But he was torn.

“When I was choosing journalism as a career,” he told us, “it was in the James Hoge days of the Sun-Times–and I’d still rather work at the Sun-Times than the Tribune. A full-time job was always the goal.

“I thought this might be the window of opportunity, thinking of some of the guys in the NFL who played on the scab teams and are now playing full-time. I thought it would be the same situation. But I talked to a guy from UPI who’d just been laid off who said, don’t do it under any circumstances. He had nothing positive to say. It wouldn’t get me anywhere. I’d be there for a week or two and have no further chance, ever again.

“I was wondering if it was a scab-type thing or a show-must-go-on-type thing,” the writer explained. “The thought of being a scab is not attractive, but stepping in to help out in a time of trouble! In spite of all the turmoil, the paper must come out!”

It was a question he’d put to the Sun-Times administrator who called him. “I asked if it might be considered a show-must-go-on-type of position, and he said yes.”