In Defense of Dirt Digging

”They have the whole country blanketed, trying to dig up dirt…These are the smartest attorneys from the best law schools in the land. All paid for at public-interest expense. It’s what’s ruining our country in large measure. Because some of these groups…are vicious."

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)

What’s so bad about trying to dig up dirt? In their furious attacks on the excesses of a few of Clarence Thomas’ opponents. Thomas and his supporters cynically sought to delegitimize the whole enterprise of investigating Supreme Court nominees and their records.

In the process, they uttered a lot of pious, hypocritical, demagogic nonsense.

Efforts by political opponents and the press to ”dig up dirt" about people in public life are as American as apple pie and as old as the republic. And such negative research is a tool used by conservatives no less than by liberals.

In the words of Bruce Murphy, author of a book on the failure of Justice Abe Fortas’ nomination to be chief justice in 1968 and his subsequent resignation under a cloud of financial improprieties: ‘ ‘The handbook for the dirt-digging operation was written by the Republicans in 1968, and the author was Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina."

Dirt digging is not only proper but good for the country-if kept within proper bounds.

By "proper bounds," I mean using legitimate investigative techniques-combing through speech texts, phoning former employees, and the like-to seek out and publicize any information that may be relevant to a nominee’s fitness for the job he or she seeks.

As for relevance, even Thomas had to concede that Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment would (if true) demonstrate his unfitness for the Court.

Given that, why shouldn’t liberal groups and Senate investigators phone former subordinates of Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to ask about rumors of sexual harassment by their boss? And when a highly credible witness makes a striking allegation, why shouldn’t they fry (by honorable means) to get it into the public domain?

There is a great deal wrong, of course, with inventing or recklessly spreading false rumors about a nominee. And there is a great deal wrong with invading people’s privacy, whether by using intrusive investigative techniques or by spreading sensitive irrelevancies about their private lives.

It’s also wrong to demonize a nominee by distorting his record, as Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and some other opponents of the Robert Bork nomination did four years ago. And it was wrong for a senator or staffer to leak Anita Hill’s allegations to the press. (It was wrong because it betrayed a promise of confidentiality to Hill; but the offense was mitigated by the public interest in preventing the Senate from confirming Thomas to a lifetime Supreme Court appointment without having given Hill a hearing.)

But Thomas and his attack-dog supporters were not interested in such distinctions. The difference between the few opponents who went too far and the many who engaged in legitimate negative research was irrelevant to them. They wanted to cast a sinister aura over all Thomas opponents.

The right-wing agenda was to brand as a vicious dirt-digger anyone who dared to comb through Thomas’ speech texts to document his inflammatory attacks on Supreme Court precedents, anyone who dared to question his implausible explanations in Senate testimony of his prior statements, anyone who dared to inquire into allegations of questionable conduct.

Most demagogic of all, Thomas, Hatch, Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), and others sought to float the preposterous suggestion that a cabal of "liberal groups" had somehow taken possession of Anita Hill’s brain and planted in it a fabricated story about sexual harassment.

Here’s how Thomas put it on Oct. 12: "I believe that someone, some interest group. I don’t care who it is, in combination, came up with this story and used this process to destroy me." Later, he ‘added: "I expected to be a sitting duck for the interest groups. I expected them to attempt to kill me…I expected people to do anything, but not this."

Nonsense. It’s possible that all or part of Anita Hill’s account was fabricated-by her. But there is not a shred of evidence that anybody else fabricated it and fed it to her. Thomas’ suggestion that "some interest group" concocted it this summer to derail his nomination was obliterated by four witnesses who testified that Hill had told them years ago that Thomas had sexually harassed her.

At another point, Thomas said: "From the very beginning, charges were leveled against me from the shadows, charges of drug abuse, anti-Semitism, wife beating, drug use by family members, that I was a quota appointment, confirmation conversion, and much, much more. And now this…I have endured this ordeal for 103 days. Reporters sneaking into my garage to examine books I read. Reporters and interest groups swarming over divorce papers looking for dirt."

Let’s parse this catalogue.

Assuming that Thomas was telling the truth about reporters sneaking into his garage, that was a reprehensible invasion of privacy.

But if Thomas considers it an unbearable "ordeal” for people to suggest that he was a quota appointment, which he was, or that his testimony smacked of "confirmation conversion," which it did, he has no business in public life. Criticism of one’s public record goes with the territory.

It’s true that false, ugly rumors about Thomas’ personal life circulated in Washington’s gossip mill; they usually do when someone seeks high office. Whoever starts such rumors is scum. But there is no evidence that the groups targeted by Thomas and his backers started them.

Reporters investigated the rumors that were arguably relevant (and some that were probably irrelevant) to Thomas’ fitness for the Court, as they should have done. But hardly any of this stu was widely disseminated to the public, because tl major news media found it all insubstantial. Left-wing outlets like The Nation did print some sneering stuff about the church Thomas attends; the mainstream press, by and large, did not.

In fact, most of the work done on the nomination by liberal groups like People for the American Way did not involve looking for personal skeletons in the closet at all. They were digging through the public record and preparing detailed, generally accurate, and highly relevant reports documenting Thomas’ many controversial statements about important issues, his attacks on Congress, and the like.

Thomas’ backers sought to suggest that even this unquestionably legitimate activity was all par and parcel of a "sleazy political campaign." in the words of Danforth. He disparaged "all the interest groups who have been pawing through every statement that he made, all of the staff members who have been analyzing every footnote and ever law review article."

Why shouldn’t they do that? What’s wrong wit examining the public statements of a man who aspires to a permanent seat on the Supreme Court for signs of his views on key issues, for signs of ^hypocrisy, for whatever may be of interest?

Danforth also complained of liberal interest groups "picking on" Thomas, who had told the Senate that he had never discussed Roe v. Wade with another person, by "taking out paid advertising in a newspaper to ask for people to come forward if they’ve ever talked about aborti with Clarence Thomas. " (Ône such ad ran in Legal Times.)

What’s wrong with that? If one suspects Thor of perjury, as almost everyone does on the Roe v Wade point, it’s perfectly logical to solicit anyone who may have relevant evidence to come forward As conservative legal commentator Bruce Fein says, "Big deal. He said it under oath. What do* he expect people to do?”

Concerted efforts to intimidate those who won provide negative information about Supreme Court nominees are not new, though they have taken different forms over the years.

Twenty years ago this month. The Washington Post reported that research by a Harvard law professor had disclosed that a leading candidate a Nixon appointment to the Court, Judge Mildre Lillie of California, had been unanimously reversed four times in recent months by the California Supreme Court.

When the professor, Laurence Tribe, got to hi office that day, he found an FBI agent waiting for him.

”They wanted to know what business did I ha looking for information about Richard Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees and who put me up to it," Tribe recalls.

Richard Kleindienst, then the deputy attorney general, and John Mitchell, then the attorney general, responded to official complaints from Harvard by admitting they had sent the FBI to se Tribe, while implausibly insisting that they were only seeking information about Lillie.

Kindred spirits of Kleindienst and Mitchell are working toward the same basic objective today: Clear the decks for right-wing Supreme Court appointments by intimidating and demonizing it opposition.