Why Ginni Thomas made that weird phone call to Anita Hill.

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Oct. 20 2010 2:48 PM

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Why Ginni Thomas made that weird phone call to Anita Hill.

Ginni Thomas. Click image to expand.
Ginni Thomas

The only question left to ponder, at the bizarre news of Ginni Thomas' "olive branch" phone call to Anita Hill, seeking an apology for "what you did with my husband" (not to but with—never mind) is: Why?

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

Why would Ginni Thomas try to relitigate an issue that ripped this country apart in the fall of 1991, when her husband has life tenure at the Supreme Court and she has a merry band of Tea Partiers (and even merrier anonymous donors) hanging on her every word? What possible benefit could there be to leaving a cheerfully passive-aggressive 7:30 a.m. voice mail for a woman you have never even met?

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Beats me. But anyone who has followed Clarence and Ginni Thomas knows that isn't the first time they have tried to upend Anita Hill.  Back in 2007, when Justice Thomas published his autobiography, My Grandfather's Son, he assailed  Hill's honesty, cited her mediocrity as an employee, and told 60 Minutes "She was not the demure, religious, conservative person that they portrayed." Ginni Thomas demanded an apology then as well. At the time, Hill was so stunned at the Thomases' need to rip open the old wound that she published a response in the New York Times and told the Boston Globe "I am surprised he has held on to the anger for that long. …  I'm surprised at the level of intensity 16 years later."

Now it's 19 years later, and apparently the Thomases' rage burns as hot as ever.  My Grandfather's Son is ample proof that Clarence Thomas lives and breathes umbrage, that no slight is forgiven, and no conspiracy theory too fanciful. Ginni Thomas, having spent three decades in the GOP policy trenches, knows a thing or two about umbrage and conspiracy theory as well. If her performance at Virginia's recent Tea Party convention is any indication, she believes the political world consists of the vicious liars in the mainstream media, the anti-democratic elitists in Washington, and a tiny bubble of goodness that is the Tea Party, her friends, and her husband.

But even if the Thomas family is still mad as hell, that doesn't explain why she'd call in October of 2010 and demand repentance, does it?

Some generous-hearted pundits have theorized that this was just woman-to-woman goodness: Ginni Thomas was truly reaching out in the spirit of reconciliation. I'm skeptical. The 7:30 voice mail accusing one of lying for two decades and requesting that one finally stop lying isn't in the top 50 dispute-resolution techniques I've researched.

My friend Nancy Goldstein wonders if this was meant to distract from a New York Times story that ran the same day as the fateful phone call, questioning Ginni Thomas' 501(c)(4) organization, Liberty Central. Perhaps, although it's difficult to imagine Ms. Thomas delivering a blistering Tea Party speech on a Friday night, opening her New York Times the next morning, and thinking, "Hey, maybe I'll call Anita Hill right this instant." Moreover, as Goldstein notes, if this was intended to distract from the conflicts around Liberty Central, it didn't work, since Hill sat on the message for several days.

It's also not clear why Ginni Thomas believes that re-arguing Thomas v. Hill 19 years later could possibly benefit Clarence Thomas. Yes, the Internet is buzzing today with claims that Prof. Hill, who never wanted to testify against Thomas in the first place and hasn't sought out any of these Desperate Housewives-style battles, is a liar and always was one. But the Washington Post has already found a former girlfriend of Justice Thomas' who claims that Hill's account of Thomas' behavior in the early 1980s is consistent with the Clarence Thomas she once dated. A new generation of Americans is being reminded of the fact that Hill took a polygraph test at the time of the hearings while Clarence Thomas did not. Anyone who ever read Strange Justice, by Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, is recalling the exhaustive research they put into establishing that Anita Hill had been smeared.

There can be no doubt that the Thomases like American history a whole lot—whether it's Clarence Thomas' ideological vision of restoring the Constitution as originally written or Ginni Thomas' rhetorical longings for the golden days of the Framers. There's also little doubt that for each of them, what happened 19 years ago is still more urgent and relevant than anything that has happened since. The self-certainty inherent in Ginni Thomas' request that Hill "get past" the confirmation hearings by admitting to have lied about it is the same self-certainty that turned Thomas' autobiography into a painful taxonomy of insults, slurs, and slights.

The cynic in me believes that there is no gender/race dispute the Tea Party is not willing to exploit for recruitment purposes, that reminding us all of the ugliest moment in American identity politics is no accident just two weeks before an election. The realist in me wonders whether Mrs. Thomas possibly believed this would stay private. She's a brilliant tactician and a superb communicator: She couldn't possibly have expected that ham-fisted attempt at reconciliation would have gone unreported.

But the depressive in me suspects that Ginni Thomas simply doesn't care what any of us think of her attempt to reach out and touch someone she hates. Why would she? She and her husband long ago passed a point at which they worry about how they will be portrayed in the mainstream press. They stopped reading it years ago. They both live in a world in which the facts of Hill v. Thomas don't matter. There are no facts. There are just "our" beliefs and "their" beliefs, just as there is "our" media and "theirs" and "our" Civil War history and "theirs." To criticize either Thomas has always been to join in the imagined conspiracy against them.

Why did Ginni Thomas make her strange call to Anita Hill? She may never explain it fully.  But those of us in the media who are pondering what she may have been trying to tell us should probably stop. This episode had nothing to do with us, and nothing to do with Hill, either. We are not in the Thomases' bubble, and we never will be.

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