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'Confirmation' on HBO is Anita Hill's revenge

When last we left Kerry Washington on our TV screens, she was beating Jon Tenney to death with an iron chair.

He was in a wheelchair at the time, after a stroke that affected his speech – not so much that he didn’t call her a slut and gloat obscenely about all the horrific things he’d done to her in the past.

This was on ABC’s “Scandal” nine days ago. Washington was playing her character Olivia Pope. Tenney was playing Andrew Niccols, the former vice president of the United States, illicit lover of the first lady and the man who engineered the previous terrorist kidnapping and degradation of Olivia Pope.

“I got revenge,” Niccols said with his wobbly speech when he had stopped spraying the vilest possible sexisms around the White House basement bunker where he had been imprisoned.

“You didn’t get revenge!” Olivia Pope screamed as she repeatedly smashed the chair into his skull “That’s mine! That’s MINE! THAT’S MINE!!!”

Washington is on HBO at 8 p.m. Saturday playing a role far more complex and circumspect. In its way, it too is a moment of revenge, belonging to the very real woman she’s playing on the show.

That would be Anita Hill, the University of Oklahoma law professor who was the star witness against Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas during his Senate confirmation hearing in 1991. The docudrama is called “Confirmation,” a double-meaning for sure.

I remember watching the real Hill testimony at the time. The entire features department back then had crowded into The News’ small former TV office, which is where the only TV on the floor was.

How well I remember Hill’s tales of Thomas’ porn-star fandom and claims of pubic hair in Coca-Cola cans. I don’t remember what other people muttered during the amazed but very infrequent commentary during her testimony. I do remember what I said  – mostly because I was so wrong. At one point, after one particularly pungent detail, I muttered “He’s toast.”

He wasn’t. He was just a tactician waiting for his chance to reply, to call it all a “high-tech lynching” and to carry the day when Judiciary Committee members had revealed themselves to be some of the most insensitive jackasses known to the male of the species.

Senators Alan Simpson, Arlen Specter, John Danforth and Orrin Hatch all were caught in the act of reacting to Hill’s modest and matter-of-fact circumspection about it all with prosecutorial preening, as if they were all auditioning to be future members of the O.J. Simpson legal “dream team.”

Clearly, all the senators understood was politics. They knew only how to react politically – with back room blackjacks and public slashes and burnings in the hope of eliciting “Aha!” responses from an awed onlooking multitude.

Against all that, Hill came off as a refresher course in how actual members of the human species are capable of acting in moments of crisis and duress.

As HBO’s drama makes clear, one crucial witness – Angela Wright who had stories about Thomas similar to Hill’s – wasn’t even heard because committee chairman Joe Biden and other members had no stomach for continued public exposure of its institutional worst self.

So what you’ll see is Hill’s revenge in American popular culture. It’s there in every silent glower from Wendell Pierce as Thomas and everything he’s incapable of saying to the TV version of his wife. It was written by Susannah Grant, who wrote “Erin Brockovich,” which should tell you something. And, in contrast to Olivia Pope, the chair-wielding, power-suited “crisis manager” of “Scandal,” Washington plays Hill as a quiet and reluctant woman forcing herself to make a public stand on a kind of understanding that women have privately had about male behavior for ages.

What men (and many women) might heretofore have considered terminally oafish had now been branded, from another perspective, as a variety of political oppression.

There would be consequences: more women in Congress and on the Judiciary Committee, just to name a couple of immediate ones.
History and television have the last laugh in this show.

Washington’s character on “Scandal” was originally based on the very real Judy Smith, the Washington “crisis manager” who once worked on the team of George H.W. Bush.

What we’re watching is about the Supreme Court selection that was made by George H.W. Bush. So one of the frequently visible members of the crisis team trying to push Thomas through the “Confirmation” gauntlet was, yes, Judy Smith, who is played by Kristen Ariza.

I’d love to have seen Washington’s private smile when the opportunity first arose to play Hill, so clearly on the other side from the woman she has become famous caricaturing on prime-time television.

But then all this happened in the bygone days of another century when presidents made Supreme Court appointments that the Senate held hearings on and either confirmed or denied.

Another world, obviously.

Neither Olivia Pope nor Judy Smith could call it back these days.

TV PREVIEW

“Confirmation”

8 p.m. April 16 on HBO

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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