Arlen Specter and the Construction of Adversarial Discourse: Selective Representation in the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Hearings

Article excerpt

"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. …