Sen. Edward Kennedy was largely silent when Anita Hill sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991 and accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Ever since, his silence has been attributed to his own reputation for indiscretion and to the rape charge that his nephew William Kennedy Smith was then facing in Florida.
Now, Kennedy's posthumous memoir argues for a different explanation: the hearing rules established by then-Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.).
“The true reason why I did not ask many questions is less melodramatic and more procedural,” Kennedy writes on page 433 of True Compass, the memoir published Monday. “Joe Biden had appointed Howell Heflin of Alabama and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a former prosecutor, as the lead questioners of Thomas for this added-on stage of the hearings, which were out of the ordinary and subject to different rules.
“I had been a regular questioner in the main part of the hearings,” he adds, “and I don’t think anyone doubted my performance then.”
The memoir does not elaborate on why Biden chose Heflin and Leahy, rather than Kennedy, who was a former Judiciary Committee chairman.
Kennedy’s account runs contrary to widely held interpretations of his performance. Hill, in her own 1997 memoir Speaking Truth to Power, wrote that Smith’s case made Kennedy “vulnerable.” The 1994 book Strange Justice said that, because of Smith, “Kennedy’s liberal activism was shut away behind a stony, embarrassed silence.” And Kennedy, less than a month after the Hill hearing, gave a speech at Harvard University apologizing for the impact of his personal behavior on his Senate work.
Smith, then a medical student, met his accuser in March 1991 while at a bar in Palm Beach. Kennedy and his son Patrick had been with Smith before Smith and the woman went off alone. Kennedy would later testify at the trial, which ended in Smith’s acquittal.
The incident became fodder for the Thomas fight even before Hill’s accusations became public, according to Strange Justice. Conservatives ran a TV ad attacking Kennedy and flashing a recent New York Post headline: “Teddy’s Sexy Romp.” His personal life continued as an issue after the hearing, when on the Senate floor two Republicans alluded to his troubles.
During the portion of the Thomas hearings related to Hill and sexual harassment, Kennedy spoke once at length. But in his memoir, Kennedy calls an “urban legend” the idea that Smith’s case — or even his own personal life — affected his performance.
“I was not reluctant to raise my voice,” Kennedy writes. “I made a strong statement at the end, as I voted in opposition to Thomas’ confirmation.”
Still, Kennedy expressed regret about his participation in the Thomas hearings when he addressed an audience at Harvard on Oct. 25, 1991. The speech — recounted in the memoir and covered in news reports at the time — included an apology to constituents and to friends and a promise to take greater responsibility for his personal behavior.
“I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than honest disagreement with my positions, or the usual criticism from the far right,” Kennedy said in the speech, according to multiple accounts. “It also involves the disappointment of friends and many others who rely on me to fight the good fight.”