Op-Ed: Anita Hill and the Smokeless Gun

By Mark Paoletta
(As featured in Washington Examiner)

In April, HBO plans to bring some star power to an event that captivated Washington — and the whole country — 25 years ago. The network’s upcoming “docu-drama,” “Confirmation,” purports to tell the true story of the divisive 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, in which Ms. Hill accused the future Supreme Court justice of sexual harassment. The film also seeks to put forward a new heroine in the story — an alleged corroborating witness named Angela Wright. Unfortunately, despite the involvement of some of Hollywood’s leading lights, viewers of “Confirmation” will end up being left in the dark.

The HBO project, which has been in development for some time, has attracted some major stars: Kerry Washington as Anita Hill; Greg Kinnear as then-Sen. Joe Biden, and Jennifer Hudson as Angela Wright, the so-called “second woman” who allegedly corroborated Hill’s story.

Unfortunately, the film’s selective depiction of the hearings, and glaring omissions, undercut HBO’s promise to give its viewers a fair and accurate account of the hearings. By mischaracterizing events related to Ms. Wright, in particular, the film also provides a great disservice to history.

Early reviews of the made-for-TV movie from advocates on the political left paint Wright as a courageous woman silenced by “an all-male and all-white Judiciary panel,” chaired by Biden. “Confirmation,” Eleanor Clift recently wrote, “will portray at least one witness against Thomas that Biden never called and that critics believe could have ended Thomas’s confirmation.” The columnistMaureen Dowd also praised Ms. Wright, who “went to D.C. to testify to Thomas’s predatory ways.”

Of course, that’s not the real story.

Wright’s credibility problems began with her checkered job history. She had been fired from her first job in Washington — working for Democratic Congressman Charlie Rose — after she “walked off the job because [she] got angry.” After a short stint at the Republican National Committee, where she also chalked up a questionable performance record, Wright went to work as a political appointee in the State Department’s Agency for International Development (USAID). She again performed poorly. When her supervisor, Kate Semerad, told her that she would be fired if her work did not improve, Wright resigned and made baseless racism allegations against Semerad.

When Semerad later went before the Senate to be confirmed for a senior administration position, Wright made an attempt at revenge. She took her old allegations to the committee considering Semerad’s nomination. The committee launched an inquiry but ultimately rejected the allegations as unfounded and then confirmed Semerad in her new post. Wright then moved to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under then-chairman Clarence Thomas, where she spent only one year, turning in another spotty performance record before being summarily dismissed by Thomas for referring to a colleague as a “faggot.”

When Thomas was up for confirmation to the Supreme Court, Wright’s pattern of smearing former bosses seemed to repeat. When her name first surfaced in the Hill investigation, several people expressed doubts about the veracity of any allegations she might make against Thomas. Thelma Duggin, a friend of both Wright and Thomas, told the FBI that she visited with Wright in August 1991 and Wright was still “pissed that he had fired her” and that she “want[ed] to get him back.” This was less than two months before Wright leveled her allegations publicly. Duggin also told the FBI that Wright was “a little shaky on the integrity side.”

Jay Morris, Kate Semerad’s former boss at USAID, made a statementto the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing similar concerns about Wright’s vindictiveness: “I am struck by the startling parallels between what Mrs. Wright did [to Semerad] and what she is doing now. She vowed vengeance on a former supervisor for dismissal on the basis of incompetence. … The entire process suggested a last-ditch attempt to stop the advancement of someone she resented.”

Most damaging to HBO’s narrative, during the Thomas hearings Wright was not called as a witness before the Judiciary Committee not because a bunch of white men were afraid to hear her, but because she herself declined to testify. I recently spoke with Sen. Alan Simpson, who was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during those hearings. He told me that he was in then-Chairman Biden’s office with the full committee during a late break in the hearings when Biden announced he had just received note from Wright’s lawyer saying she did not want to testify. Biden then negotiated an agreement with Wright and her lawyer, memorialized in a letter she signed. The letter stated that although Biden preferred for her to testify in person, Wright could choose to decline. Her subpoena would be vitiated, and her interview with Committee staff would be placed in the record.

Far from being prevented from testifying, Wright chose not to testify. And for good reason. During Wright’s interview with Senate Judiciary Committee staff, she had refused to answer questions about her previous allegations against Ms. Semerad. Ms. Wright would not have been so lucky before the full committee in full view of the media, where her credibility would have been shredded.

It is not surprising to see HBO, a network with a history of liberal bias, make such a movie. Nor is it shocking to see left-wing journalists rush to promote it and its distorted version of history. After all, Democrats have been angry for years that they failed to derail Thomas’ nomination. It is strange, however, that HBO would try to use that movie to bolster the credibility of Angela Wright, a woman best known for being fired by Thomas after she uttered a homophobic slur. In HBO’s reimagined take on the hearings, Wright will always be the woman that the New York Times and Democrats wished she were — a “second woman” who would testify that Thomas made inappropriate comments to a female in the workplace.

Wright was not that woman. That the producers of “Confirmation” would lionize a woman who was fired for making a homophobic slur is troubling, and shows you what Hollywood will do when it values sensation over truth.

Mark Paoletta practices law in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush 41 White House Counsel’s Office during the Thomas confirmation hearings and as a chief investigative counsel for the House Energy & Commerce Committee for a decade.