Stiehm, Jamie

JAMIE STIEHM

I like living in a small Southern town. It’s called Washington, D.C. You can study character here.

President Joe Biden is not the man he was 30 years ago, and that’s a good thing.

Remember when Biden presided over Senate hearings that rocked and roiled the nation? They opened the way not for truth nor justice, but for Clarence Thomas’s climb to the Supreme Court.

Thomas still sits there, ready to deny rights to American women and girls.

Biden made an indelible mark of his failings in 1991. Far from judicious, he was loud, unfair, repetitive — even ridiculous — in the eye of a storm.

Boy, he’s grown wings since those tragic autumn days.

Few American politicians have changed so much, so well, over the arc of a career.

Leading in the worst of times, Biden brings uncommon patience and wisdom, gifts of age. He navigated the nation through a pandemic and to victory in Congress on rebuilding our broken infrastructure.

The bipartisan bill covers his beloved trains, but it was no easy ride. In a morning-to-midnight marathon, the House sealed the big deal. Good going!

Long ago, Biden let his panel treat Anita Hill, an Oklahoma law professor, like trash. She came forward with a serious story of Thomas’ sexual harassment on the job.

For the public, “sexual harassment” was a new way of saying something common as dirt. Her tale hit women between the eyes as a storm gathered.

Hill’s gripping testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Biden, told of being sexually harassed by Thomas in painfully specific detail. He was her boss at a government agency, the one meant to check sexual misconduct in workplaces.

My soccer team tuned in by radio from glum Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. For me, the sinking moment was when Biden pounded and shouted, over and over, “You get the benefit of the doubt, Judge (Thomas).”

The senator who shone through the storm, Robert C. Byrd, D-W. Va., corrected Biden: no, Joe, the benefit of the doubt goes to the country. Byrd declared he believed Hill.

The hearing, in the grand room where the Titanic’s fate was examined, was no criminal trial.

For many, the heart-stopping moment came when Thomas denounced the hearing as a “high-tech lynching.” He played the race card to end the game, though his accuser was a Black woman.

The Senate solemnly voted 52-48 to confirm sullen Thomas, in a sea of suits and ties — 98 men and two women.

History’s stain on Biden is this: he refused to call other witnesses waiting to back up Hill’s account. Also, he let a trio of white Republican senators — Utah’s Orrin Hatch, Wyoming’s Alan Simpson and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter — belittle and insult Hill, unflinching in her dignity.

They were thunder, lightning, rain.

Irony was not lost on me when I moved here to be a Washington writer after that. Hatch invited me to listen to country Christian songs he wrote; Simpson regaled me with a store of Western stories; and Specter asked me to play squash. Small town.

Hill, in a new book titled “Believing,” wrote: “We all needed to raise our voices ... to break down walls of silence that still surround individuals.” Now a Brandeis University professor, Hill is an expert on gender violence.

The 1991 scar on memory runs deep and wide as the Mississippi River.

A Supreme Court justice at 43, Thomas was a young, unseasoned judge. President George H.W. Bush made a cynical “conservative” choice for civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall’s seat.

Anna Quindlen, my favorite columnist, wrote in The New York Times, “She got trashed and he got confirmed. Simple as that.” Quindlen noted “a kind of radiance” in Hill.

Thomas and Samuel Alito are on the far-right wing of a conservative Court falling fast in public esteem.

Was it atonement when Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate?

The president never apologized publicly for searing us live.

Yet he’s notably a better man, with less ego as president than he showed as a senator.

Biden vowed to name a woman of color to the Supreme Court. To start to square history’s accounts, that woman should be Anita Hill.

Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. Her column is distributed by Creators.