Even before President Clinton referred to the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing in his grand jury testimony, comparisons between the Monica Lewinsky scandal and my testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee were being made.
The comparisons usually come in the form of a question to Democrats: "How do the current accusations differ from those raised during the Thomas hearing?"Or more bluntly, "Why aren't women as outraged by what Bill Clinton did as they were with Clarence Thomas or Bob Packwood?"
Given the difference in the facts, the thinking behind such comparisons is at best misguided, and at worst dangerous. If impeachment hearings proceed, it is important for the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to recognize the differences and avoid the circus atmosphere that surrounded the hearing on Thomas' Supreme Court nomination.
The substance of sex-related accusations against Clinton differs dramatically from those raised against Thomas or Packwood. According to their testimony, Clinton and Lewinsky viewed their relationship as consensual. While their immoral and undignified behavior no doubt had a negative effect on others in the office and in the Clinton household, it was not coerced, unwanted or illegal.
In the case of Packwood and Thomas, the accusations involved sexual harassment. To equate those allegations with an office affair is to trivialize issues of sexual predation that women face in the workplace and on the street.
Nor are the situations morally equivalent. The possible violation of a woman's civil rights is not the same as the emotional pain and loss of trust that result from extramarital affairs. Equating the two promotes a form of moral fundamentalism that devalues women.
Do we learn anything from looking back at the Thomas hearing? I hope we learn how difficult and painful it is to address issues involving sex and power. And as the House Judiciary Committee begins evaluating the evidence in this case, it should keep in mind another lesson from the Thomas hearing: The American people not only care about getting the truth, they also care about how they get it.
The Thomas hearing was inherently flawed and lacked credibility. The Senate rushed to conclude the proceeding, without thinking through its own role. It soon became apparent that the committee was simply not competent to conduct a hearing on the legal issue of whether Thomas had sexually harassed me. People may have chosen sides during the hearing, but no one believed that the hearing was fair or orderly.
Unfortunately, in the current scandal, the process has already been tainted in the minds of the public. It began with a tape that was made illegally. It has been plagued with leaks. And Kenneth Starr's report and supporting evidence were released before Clinton had a chance to respond. Clearly the president and Lew-in-sky used sex for their own purposes, but are Starr and the Republicans doing the same thing?
It is up to the House Judiciary Committee to restore the public's faith in the integrity of the process and to ensure that all issues receive a fair hearing. The panel can start by asking not how Clinton's behavior differed from that of Thomas but how committee members can learn from the past to conduct a fair hearing.