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Joe Biden’s Anita Hill problem

Joe Biden and Anita Hill.Globe Staff photo illustration/file photos

As Joe Biden looks back again on the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, hindsight is, as usual, 20/20. And, in Biden’s case, all about 2020.

In a “Today” show interview, the former vice president said he regrets how Hill was treated 27 years ago, when he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and she gave testimony alleging sexual harassment by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. “Anita Hill was vilifed when she came forward by a lot of my colleagues, character assassination. I wish I could’ve done more to prevent those questions and the way they asked them,” he said.


But Biden’s colleagues weren’t the only ones to mistreat Hill. He also posed questions designed to humiliate her. That inconvenient flashback to 1991 comes in the midst of the bitter fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination — and just as Biden positions himself for a 2020 presidential run. His hope that Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, would be “treated with dignity” is playing out against reruns of Hill’s testimony, where she was treated with anything but respect. A musty memory that might have been forgotten or at least forgiven by Democrats willing to consider Barack Obama’s vice president as someone who could beat President Trump has new politically damaging life in the #MeToo era.

No matter how woke Biden is now, back then he was very much part of an old boy network that was obviously unhappy about having to deal with what Republican senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming called “this sexual harassment crap.” For a condensed memory refresher, watch “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power,” a documentary of the hearings and aftermath, produced in 2014. Biden did nothing to stop brutal questions from Republicans on the committee and personally pressed Hill to recount mortifying details of her interactions with Thomas. He demanded to know “what was the most embarrassing of all the incidents you have alleged?” He asked about the graphic Coke can story, which she had already described in written testimony. He also wanted more information about the reference that Thomas allegedly made “to an individual with a very large penis.” That query seemed more about getting Hill to say “Long Dong Silver” than getting to the truth.


Even before the Kavanaugh nomination brought it all up again, Biden acknowledged that he owed Hill an apology. Yet, according to Hill, he hasn’t offered one. “It’s become sort of a running joke in the household when someone rings the doorbell and we’re not expecting company,” she told Elle Magazine “ ‘Oh,’ we say. ‘Is that Joe Biden coming to apologize?’ ” As Biden confronts what Politico calls “the ghost of Anita Hill,” he could at least make good on that apology. It’s the decent thing to do, even if Hill is no longer waiting for it. Whatever happens with Kavanaugh, the political issue of sexual assault and harassment and how female accusers are treated isn’t going away. Women, especially those who vote in Democratic presidential primaries, will make sure of that, with support from the party’s progressive wing. As a Democratic lawmaker told Politico, it’s not something Biden can charm his way out of: “I think in 2018, you can’t just smile it away,” said Toi Hutchinson, president of the National Association of State Legislators and an Illinois state senator.


On women’s issues, is Biden better than Trump? Who isn’t? Biden’s problem is a large and diverse field of primary candidates whose resumes won’t include footage from 25-plus years ago, showing a panel of insensitive men putting a woman on trial for daring to accuse another powerful male of inappropriate conduct. That unpleasant blast from the past is also a reminder of just how far back Biden goes in American political history. Sorry, but it will take more than saying he was wrong back then to make Biden the right presidential candidate in 2020.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.