"I do not regard this as an adversary proceeding."(1)
- Arlen Specter
On the morning of October 11, 1991, Senator Arlen Specter used these words to begin what many observers view as a rather antagonistic interview with Professor Anita F. Hill regarding her allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. For many long hours, the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, meeting in open session, questioned Hill, Thomas, and other witnesses in attempts to assess the validity, relevance, and consequences of her claims. These hearings, reconvened after Thomas' initial review specifically to address Hill's complaints, captured the attention of home viewers across the country during live television broadcasts, largely because of the unusual drama of such an otherwise dull governmental proceeding.
Senator Specter was widely regarded as one of the fiercest figures during this second round of hearings. In the midst of the questioning, TV commentators even "credited him with having 'drawn first blood'," a remark which reportedly pleased and invigorated the senator (Phelps & Winternitz, p. 345). Yet, in the disclaimer quoted above as well as in other instances, Specter maintained that his purpose as examiner was not to attack Hill, but simply "to find out what happened." Given such protestations, how, in his questioning of Hill, did the senator demonstrate hostility toward this witness? Put otherwise, what social structures and argumentative strategies did Specter invoke in this discursive practice to place Hill in a position of such seeming powerlessness? In this article, I suggest that one key resource contributing to the adversarial nature of Specter and Hill's interaction is that of ambiguity, specifically in terms of "selective representation."
As it is used here, "selective representation" refers to Specter's consistent pattern of referring back to previous events and testimony through partial and out-of-context descriptions. Warnick and Inch characterize such incomplete depictions as unacceptable:
Arguers have an obligation, so far as is possible, to fully inform their recipients about available alternatives so that they can make informed choices about the best choice or course of action. For this reason, slighting or misrepresenting opposing points of view is undesirable. (p. 296)
Thus, by continuing to proffer selectively represented descriptions, Specter promoted an adversarial perspective which persisted throughout the hearings.
The instances I will examine are taken from the morning of October 11, 1991, Hill's first day of testimony, during Republican designate Specter's first turn at questioning her. Before this point, Hill only read a prepared statement and responded to questions from Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who might be considered a "friendly" examiner of this witness against Republican nominee Thomas. Although Specter and others question Hill at length on different occasions during the hearings, this initial interrogation is an important interaction since it sets the tone for how he (and perhaps all of the Republicans) treats this witness throughout the proceedings. By closely examining how Specter builds his questions and elicits Hill's responses, I will attempt to demonstrate Specter's active role in this "adversarial" proceeding.
That I have chosen to examine a text which I feel represents a "hostile" interaction may appear to be a subjective assessment. However, the significant political repercussions arising from his questioning style which Specter experienced in the aftermath of the Thomas hearings provide intersubjective agreement on the part of the American public as to his antagonistic behavior. Immediately after the exchange, Specter's offices in both Washington and Pennsylvania were flooded by thousands of telephone calls from citizens protesting his rough treatment of Hill. "Forty people were put to work in the senator's offices simply answering irate women's calls, which overloaded the telephone system and temporarily put it out of commission" (Phelps and Winternitz, p. 346). In a more long-range reverberation of this event, "Specter's aggressive approach in attacking Hill's credibility outraged many women and ultimately helped an underdog female candidate [Lynn Yeakel] win the Democratic primary in the Pennsylvania Senate race to oppose Specter's reelection" (Smith, p. 90). Consequently, according to the Wall Street Journal, in order to win the 1992 election Specter "found it necessary to all but grovel in apology for his performance at the hearings" (Abramson, p. A1). One of his television advertisements even featured Teresa Heinz, a moderate Republican and the popular widow of Pennsylvania's late Senator John Heinz, offering her backhanded support. Regarding Specter's treatment of Hill as the exception to an otherwise good record on women's issues, Heinz asserted that "I certainly didn't agree with Arlen Specter during the Clarence Thomas hearings. . . . Nevertheless, I'm supporting him" (qtd. in Smith, p. 135). Thus, even according to his own campaign ads, there appears to be no doubt that a significant number of Americans who viewed the hearings on television found Specter's treatment of Hill to be unduly adversarial.
ARGUMENT THROUGH SELECTIVE REPRESENTATION
The Thomas hearings, part two, were unique in recent American history in terms of the public attention they garnered. Given such hyper-attention to this real-life daytime drama, why did the committee choose to allow the "media circus" which sprung up in Washington's Russell Senate Office Building? According to Biden, the committee has every right to meet in closed session whenever it so chooses. Why, then, would the senators subject both Hill and Thomas, as well as themselves, to such intense mediated scrutiny? Certainly one reason must have been to attempt to deflect some of the criticism recently aimed at the committee for apparently not considering Hill's accusations of sexual harassment serious enough to warrant investigation. The unflinching eye of the cameras would capture their relentless attention to the issue. As Steenland writes, "we, the American public, were the intended audience for the hearings. They were televised for us. And, in the end, we were the jury" (p. 37), for Thomas, Hill, and the committee.
Even more important than why television cameras were allowed, though, is the question of how they affected the public's perceptions of the players and events unfolding before them. For constituents watching their senators question Thomas and Hill, the hearings represented "live" government-in-action. Rather than simply reading about the proceedings in the newspaper or seeing short clips of the event on the evening news, numerous Americans observed every single question, every comment, every conflict that arose in the hearings, with distribution fractured only by camera placement, scene cuts, and captions. As several members of the Judiciary Committee later learned, this immediacy carried with it material consequences in terms of future reelection as voters weighed their senators' performance during the proceedings. Illinois Democrat Alan Dixon, for instance, lost his party's primary election to Carol Moseley-Braun after voting to confirm Thomas. According to Mosley-Braun, Dixon's actions during the hearings and his subsequent vote directly motivated her to run: "We all thought of the Senate as this lofty place, a Valhalla even, where weighty decisions were made by these serious men. . . . Instead, we saw that they were just garden-variety politicians making bad speeches" (qtd. in Smith, p. 132).
Increased opposition against Specter in Pennsylvania also can be traced to his performance on the Judiciary Committee. In her fund-raising letter during the general election, Yeakel reminded Pennsylvanians of what they had seen the year before:
It was a low point for the United States Senate and a cold slap in the face to women in Pennsylvania and across America.
I've never been more shocked, outraged, and embarrassed than when I watched Pennsylvania's senior senator browbeat Professor Anita Hill on national television.
Arlen Specter completely ignored the courage and integrity this woman showed in coming forward with revelations of sexual harassment.