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As he considers 2020, Joe Biden airs regrets of Anita Hill hearings

Then-senator Joe Biden (left) in 1991 at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings.Greg Gibson/Associated Press/File

Weighing a 2020 campaign for president, former vice president Joe Biden says he should have protected Anita Hill from what he called ‘‘character assassination’’ during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas more than a quarter century ago.

Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee during the contentious 1991 hearings. As sexual misconduct again shadows a high court confirmation, Biden said he failed to prevent the all-male committee from putting Hill on the defensive.

‘‘Anita Hill was vilified when she came forward, by a lot of my colleagues,’’ Biden said during an interview on NBC’s Today. ‘‘I wish I could have done more to prevent those questions and the way they asked them.’’


Biden was reflecting on his lead role in a seminal moment in the nation’s debate over sexual harassment, long before the explosion of the #MeToo movement and the return of allegations of sexual impropriety in a Supreme Court confirmation.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh is accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford, now a university professor in California, when they were in high school more than 30 years ago. Kavanaugh has denied the allegation, which has rekindled questions of Biden’s leadership of the Judiciary Committee as he considers another presidential run.

With his wife Jill at his side, Biden struck a contrite tone during the NBC interview, arguing the experience prompted him to invite women senators to join the Judiciary Committee and for him to author the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.

But he mainly expressed powerlessness to stop his male committee colleagues from being insensitive. During Hill’s testimony to the committee, some members suggested she was exaggerating and that the lack of allegations of any physical contact by Thomas was defensible.

‘‘My biggest regret was I didn’t know how I could shut you off, as you were a senator, and you were attacking Anita Hill’s character,’’ Biden said. ‘‘Under the Senate rules, I can’t gavel you down and say you can’t ask that question, although I tried. And so what happened was she got victimized again during the process.’’


And though Biden said ‘‘I think I got it in ’91,’’ he memorably asked Hill flatly during the hearing to describe ‘‘what was the most embarrassing of all the incidences that you have alleged?’’

Friday, Biden said ‘‘it takes enormous courage for a woman to come forward in the bright lights of millions of people watching and relive something that happened to her.’’

Biden, twice a candidate for president before two terms as vice president under Barack Obama, says he would run in 2020 if no other candidate steps forward who he believes can beat President Trump, a Republican. Biden says he expects to decide whether to seek the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination by early next year.

Meanwhile, fellow Democratic presidential prospects such as California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, sit on the Judiciary Committee today. They have already attracted attention for their roles on the committee during Kavanaugh’s previous hearings. They could again assert themselves as national leaders on this politically charged issue if Kavanaugh returns to the committee next week to testify about the allegation.