Fact-Checking HBO’s Confirmation

Kerry Washington as Anita Hill. Photo: HBO

It’s been nearly 25 years since a nation watched, considered, and cringed through hours of live testimony delivered by then-University of Oklahoma professor Anita Hill and Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Thomas, just days away from a vote to determine whether he’d be sworn in as Justice, stood accused by Hill of sexually harassing her over a period of several years during which he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. The details in Hill’s statements—ranging from Thomas’ alleged romantic overtures to his outright predilection toward graphic pornography—were as stunning to those in the room and viewing at home as Thomas’ fierce rebuttals, which likened the proceedings to a “high-tech lynching.” Just as infamously, the hearings were aborted without a clear sense of the truth. Less than a week later, Thomas, flanked by President George H.W. Bush, was sworn in as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

HBO’s Confirmation, which aired Saturday night, offers a dramatized accounting of those three extraordinary days. With Kerry Washington portraying Hill and Wendell Pierce as Thomas, in addition to an ensemble of recognizable faces making up the vast Senate staff (headed by Joe Biden, who was head of the Judiciary Committee at the time) that instigated and presided over the shambolic hearings. We reached out to a handful of individuals who were close—or reported on—the hearings as a way to gauge how closely Confirmation comes to accurately characterizing the major players and depicting the events therein. While declining to be formally interviewed, Hill’s close friend and former University of Oklahoma colleague Shirley Wiegand (played in the movie by Erika Christensen) told Vulture via e-mail that Confirmation “accurately portrayed the flawed Senate Judiciary Committee process, Biden’s discomfort, [and] Thomas’ anger.” She added that, while “minor details distracted me (who was in which room, who said what)… I believe it is honest and fair.”

Ruth Marcus, a syndicated Washington Post columnist who was the paper’s Supreme Court correspondent during the Hill/Thomas hearings, talked to us for a more in-depth conversation on the film. Below are her insights (barring behind-the-scenes meetings and private conversations she wasn’t privy to) into where Confirmation got the circumstances and personalities involved spot-on, and where they took dramatic license.

What They Got Right

Biden’s Refusal to Ruffle Feathers
“I think Biden doesn’t like to be the bad guy,” says Marcus unequivocally. “He doesn’t like conflict and being seen to be unfair. When Thomas came into the hearing room, nobody knew what he was going to say. This absolute denial and these conflicting stories were difficult to handle, and particularly difficult for senators, especially when you’re talking about issues involving sex. Biden was torn between all sorts of conflicting impulses, and the movie does a pretty good job of illustrating that. If anything, I think it could have been harder on him.”

The 'Slimy' Erotomania Assertions
“It was so slimy,” Marcus recalls. “It was one of the slimiest moments in Washington political history. The story breaks, and we’re all trying to scramble and figure out what to make of it, and it’s moving super fast. I distinctly remember getting a call from someone in the administration peddling this argument that she was suffering from erotomania, and this was a serious diagnosis. I have to say, it just seemed to me to be laughable on its face. We’d seen her affidavit, and it was not the affidavit of a crazy person suffering from some disease none of us had ever heard of. It was the affidavit of someone who seemed very measured and in control of her faculties and not foaming at the mouth to come forward.”

A Desperate Judiciary Committee
“One of the things the movie does really well is to evoke and remind those of us who lived through it about the absolute desperation and, therefore, the absolute scumminess of the behavior of people who in good faith believed Justice Thomas was telling the truth. But they were sure willing to go to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate that… The White House wanted to get their nominee confirmed, and so even granting that there was some understandable [lack] of an educational framework for understanding sexual harassment in 1991, there was then this rabid attack on her at the hearings and in the background of the hearings that was pretty astonishing. That series of questions with The Excorcist and the pubic hair and the Coke can—you couldn’t believe you were sitting in the Senate office building hearing this stuff.”

The Thomas’ Anguish
“One of the things I like about the movie is it does an accurate job of portraying the anger and anguish that Justice Thomas and his wife were feeling at the time,” concedes Marcus. “I don’t purport to get inside their heads, but if you watched him, if you watched them, if you read what he wrote afterwards—whatever you think happened, there was some real feeling on their part that they were wronged and mistreated and unfairly dealt with. Even if you tend, as I do, to believe Anita Hill, there was this incredibly visceral feeling on their side, and portraying that was both accurate and dramatic.”

Thomas Tuning Out Of Hill’s Testimony
“That’s what he said, yeah,” confirms Marcus. “It’s accurate that he said that, and it was stunning. It seemed bizarrely disrespectful of the process, but I guess his point was the process was disrespectful of him. It made it difficult to have a useful conversation about, ‘Well, what do you have to say about what she said?’ We were having these serious hearings about serious allegations that needed to be dealt with, but he says, ‘Well, I couldn’t be bothered to watch this.’”

The Stunning Omission of Angela Wright
“It was a big surprise when she didn’t testify,” remembers Marcus. “It just can’t have been in Anita Hill’s best interest to not call Angela Wright.”

[Editor’s Note: Rose Jourdain, a potential witness for Hill who corroborated Wright’s story to investigators but was not called to testify, was not portrayed in the film.]

What They May Have Taken Liberties With

The Number of Initial Investigators
The film excludes a number of Senators, staffers, and attorneys who were relevant at various points between Hill’s initial phone conversations with aides and her being called to testify. Among them, Ohio Democratic Senator Howard Metzenbaum, his lawyer James Brudney, and Chief of Nominations of Judiciary Harriet Grant. In addition, the character of Biden staffer Carolyn Hart is fictitious, and a likely amalgam of then-Chief Counsel of the Judiciary Committee Ron Klain and the Committee’s Staff Director Cynthia Hogan.

 “It left all of that out and concentrated on the Ricki Seidman figure,” says Marcus, who discloses that she and Seidman remained close friends after the hearings. “The Senate Judiciary Committee has a lot of different members, all of whom have numerous staffs who are all involved. It would be impossible to do a movie that would reflect that reality. Confirmation made it look like there were two staffers—the Rickie Seidman character and the combined Ron Klain and Cynthia Hogan character. Drama is easier to follow when you’re dealing with a smaller cast, and watching the movie dramatically, it juxtaposed these two women staffers not quite against each other but with different attitudes. It probably was more dramatic than having a bunch of different people, and also a man against a woman. In reality, major decision-making was being made by Ron Klain. But I did not think conflating staffers misrepresented the complicated reality of the forces making it difficult to handle this episode.”

Not Much Ado About Who Leaked Hill’s Affidavit
“It was an interesting choice that we did not get involved in the whodunit of how it leaked,” observes Marcus. “As I remember, watching the movie, nobody’s fingered or suspected or freaked out by the exposure of all this. [In reality], there was a lot of freaking out among staff about how this happened and who did it, and there was a very serious investigation to identify the leaker that ended up unresolved. I thought there was enough dramatic tension in who was telling the truth in the story between Thomas and Hill. I’m not sure what you lose in terms of understanding the richness of the story.”

Senator John Danforth As a Cold-Hearted Villain
“John Danforth was, and is, a generally decent guy, good senator [who] found himself in a position where somebody he’d known a long time was being accused of terrible things that seemed inconceivable to him,” Marcus offers. “He was willing in the course of this political warfare... [it wasn't] really in keeping with the kind of person he generally was."

Pat Schroeder’s Storming of the Senate
“I don’t think that really had a big impact,” Marcus says of the congresswoman and her colleagues confronting male senators in an effort to delay the vote for Thomas’ nomination. “The women all came and marched in and told the guys to do their job, and it’s a scene that’s unimaginable today because there are more women in the senate and on the Judiciary Committee. But that scene to me felt like it made that moment seem like a bigger deal in terms of affecting outcome than it was.”

Senator Alan Simpson as Primary Antagonistic Inquisitor
“There were so many bad actors,” says Marcus of the Committee. “There was so much blame to go around. [The filmmakers] don’t seem to do a lot with Arlen Specter. I’m sorry to speak ill of the dead, but he was sitting there, as I recall, essentially telling her she was guilty of perjury. He was, in the hearing, the most prosecutorial of them all. There were so many people who behaved so badly in the heat of the moment in order to achieve their ends. I’m not saying they knew Anita Hill was telling the truth or knew Anita Hill wasn’t. It’s just really easy to suppress your doubts and demonize the opposition when the stakes are so high, and that’s what happened here. A whole bunch of people looked bad [in the movie], and they deserved to.” 

Senator Ted Kennedy’s Heroic Moment
“I mostly recall his presence by his absence,” states Marcus. “But that might be affected by the Saturday Night Live-ization of the whole thing. I don’t remember a redemptive moment. I mostly remember Kennedy being sidelined. Maybe there was a point at which he stood up for her, but she was lacking cover from the Democratic senators.”

[Editor’s Note: As depicted in Confirmation, Senator Kennedy did, at one juncture late in the hearings, admonish the Committee for attempting to "psychoanalyze" Professor Hill.]