Othello Goes to Washington: Cultural Politics and the Thomas/Hill Affair

Article excerpt

On Saturday, October 12, 1991, faced with Professor Anita Hill's testimony from the previous day alleging that Judge Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming transformed sensational political melodrama into Shakespearean tragedy in an attempt to save the judge's nomination. During the final round of the committee's questioning of Thomas, Simpson declared, chorus-like:

I tell you I do [think] Shakespeare would love this. This is all Shakespeare. This is about love and hate and cheating and distrust and kindness and disgust and avarice and jealousy and envy--all those things that make that remarkable bard read today. But, boy, I tell you one came to my head and I just went and got it out of the back of the book, Othello. Read Othello and don't ever forget this line. "Good name in man and woman dear, my Lord"--remember this scene--"is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash; T'is [sic] something, nothing; T'was [sic] mine, t'is [sic] his and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed." What a tragedy! What a disgusting tragedy! (Phelps and Winternitz 355)(1)

Those unfamiliar with the Othello text undoubtedly accepted the quotation at face value because of Thomas's lengthy lamentations on the loss of his reputation. Familiarity with Othello, on the other hand, led some to view Simpson's allusion with amused contempt because the lines he quoted belong not to Othello but to Iago, who elsewhere says, "Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving" (II.iii. 268-70). If Simpson blundered, what was his initial purpose? Had he sent a staffer to look up entries under "reputation" in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and picked this one because Othello was black?(2) Whom did he consider his audience? Surely, Simpson did not mean to draw an analogy between Thomas and the enraged Othello who kills his white wife out of jealousy, especially since behind the enraged Thomas sat his white wife.

At the time, Simpson's Othello allusion received scant notice in the New York Times, where Maureen Dowd reported it without analyzing its purpose (29). In retrospective accounts, the Othello appropriation was overlooked by contributors to Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (1992) and by David Brock in The Real Anita Hill: The Untold Story (1993), the latest attempt to delve into Hill's motivation. In two 1991 articles in The New Republic, however, Simpson's declaration became subject to derision along with other examples of the misuse of literary allusion by committee members.(3) Barry Edelstein termed Simpson's "recourse to Othello...incongruous" since Iago, who speaks the lines, is "a white man who, although supposedly on Othello's side, plots to bring him down and eventually destroys him." Edelstein found it "no wonder [that] Judge Thomas, along with every other literate American, sat there silent" (13).(4) Robert Brustein also complained that the words quoted are "uttered by the dissimulating villain Iago, who is stonewalling." He added that Thomas, "vigorously nodding in agreement...offered no protest or correction" (34). Additionally, in Capitol Games (1992), authors Phelps and Winternitz reported:

Thomas seemed to wince as Simpson spoke. The parallels to Thomas were perfect, and completely misunderstood by Simpson. The lines that the senator quoted were not those of Othello, the black tragic hero of the play, but of Iago, the scheming villain, who was falsely trying to convince Othello that he was telling the truth. (355)(5)

Although they do not reveal their reasons, Phelps and Winternitz seem correct in saying that "the parallels to Thomas were perfect." Despite his seeming misappropriation of Shakespeare in a feeble bid to lend sympathy and tragic stature for Thomas, Simpson is not the literary simpleton he appeared. …