- - Sunday, April 10, 2016


In a year when civility and courtesy have been replaced by insults and vulgarity in the nation’s political conversation, why would anyone want to reopen one of the most divisive episodes in recent American history? And yet that is exactly what HBO is doing by airing a movie on the Senate hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice.

Few knew anything about Clarence Thomas in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush nominated him to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Court, but many were struck by what a talented nominee he was. It’s a great day, I thought, when a white Republican president proposes a black lawyer for the highest court in the land. Justice Thomas was not the first black justice (Justice Marshall held that honor), but his nomination was a genuine measure of progress in our society. (Full disclosure: My wife and I have gotten to know Clarence Thomas and his wife in the years since he joined the court, and are now close personal friends.)

Then the confirmation hearings began, and it was shocking the way Mr. Thomas was attacked on a personal basis. It was character assassination — or as Mr. Thomas said at the time, “a high tech lynching.”

Rather than challenge his legal philosophy or educational credentials, which would have been fair game, his opponents tried to destroy his character with half-truths, lies and innuendo. They attacked Mr. Thomas with virtually no evidence to support their accusations. In fact, the accusations appear to have been fabricated for the confirmation hearing alone. Their tactics fascinated the press and public, but it was sickening to watch such a fine man treated in such an unfair way

This, I believe, was the beginning of our society’s loss of civility. The decay has continued and deepened so much over the past 25 years to the point that now our presidential candidates or their surrogates regularly trade words like “liar,” “stupid,” “sweaty,” “conman” and dozens of similar insults while virtually ignoring a $19 trillion national debt, a $500 billion annual deficit, a miserably weak economy, looming shortfalls in entitlement funding, national security, and our failing educational system.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, on April 16 HBO is going to broadcast “Confirmation,” a made-for-TV movie that will dramatize the outrageous Clarence Thomas hearings. To be clear, I have seen the script of “Confirmation” so I know how it treats the Justice and his accusers. My objection is not to the content or point of view. It is to the fact of the movie itself. Simply put, it is an unnecessary, unwanted incitement at an incendiary time in American life. Gasoline thrown onto an already dangerous bonfire.

Can anyone say they were on the edge of their seat waiting for this? Or can it be justified as an important tale about sexual harassment in the workplace? Well, if that is the case, let’s ask ourselves which episode in recent history is a better topic for a movie: A confirmation hearing in which one woman claimed — without any independent corroboration — that nine years earlier Mr. Thomas had made statements she interpreted as sexual harassment? Or the real and egregious case of sexual misconduct in the workplace when President Bill Clinton seduced a 21-year-old intern into performing oral sex in the White House?

Which movie should be made? Neither in my opinion, especially not in the midst of this crucial election year. The Constitution may guarantee freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but that does not relieve outlets like HBO of their civic duty to shun socially irresponsible behavior. And make no mistake: The airing of “Confirmation” will open old wounds, rake up more racial animosity and push the nasty national mood further in the wrong direction.

We Americans need to demand more of our political leaders, and of ourselves. We can and should discuss their policy positions and personal qualifications. But we must not allow them to deploy unsubstantiated personal attacks or gross distortions against the opposition. We must treat each other with civility, courtesy and politeness. We must once again learn to disagree without being disagreeable.

What we shouldn’t do is accept the media version of a Molotov cocktail into our homes.

David Sokol is chairman and CEO of Teton Capital, LLC, a private equity firm.

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