The phone call Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's wife placed to Anita Hill earlier this month seeking an apology for Hill's allegation 19 years ago that Thomas sexually harassed her may go down as a textbook lesson in unintended consequences.
With a single voice mail message, Virginia Thomas managed to rekindle interest in a story many Americans no longer remember or never heard about - and set in motion a series of events that could seriously undermine her husband's credibility and damage his long effort to distance himself from his controversial confirmation to the court.
After years of refusing interviews, Lillian McEwen, a former girlfriend of Thomas's, agreed to talk to The Washington Post and appeared to corroborate Hill's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on Thomas's nomination that he had a keen interest in pornography and sometimes made sexually-suggestive comments to women in the workplace - allegations that Thomas has always denied.
She reiterated that point in an interview with Rebecca Cooper, reporter for Washington's ABC affiliate, WJLA-TV.
"He was obsessed with pornography," McEwen told ABC7/WJLA-TV. "It was something he talked about quite frequently."
McEwen also confirmed reports that Thomas asked a colleague about her bra size and that he was a regular at a Dupont Circle shop that offered pornographic films.
"The owner of the store stocked Clarence's preferences behind the counter," McEwen said.
McEwen said that Virginia Thomas may not have had all the facts about her husband when she approached Hill last week seeking an apology.
"Clarence should know that [Hill] doesn't owe him an apology, but it's not something he would have necessarily communicated to his wife," McEwen said. "I would tell her to have a conversation with her husband and get the truth out of him, but the chances of that happening are not great."
A Supreme Court spokeswoman said Justice Thomas had no comment on McEwen's account.
McEwen, who has worked as a prosecutor, a defense attorney and an administrative law judge for the Securities and Exchange Commission, maintains she had a romantic relationship with Thomas from 1981 to 1986. She said she did not speak out in 1991 in part because she was still friendly with Thomas, but also because she suspected neither Hill nor Thomas was being entirely honest.
"I felt that neither was telling the truth because I had always assumed that Clarence had had a sexual relationship with her," McEwen said. She conceded, however, that she had no proof of such a relationship.
McEwen said she was persuaded to break her silence this week in part because she has written a book about her life and is looking for a publisher. She insisted she harbored no ill-will towards Thomas, but simply sees no reason to keep quiet at this point.
"The reason I am talking now is because I have retired, I have reflected on my life since I have retired, I have written a book about my life which happens to include him in it. The book may never have been published," she said. "Why would I let other people write about me?"
A spokesman for Brandeis University, where Hill currently serves as a professor, said she is declining all interviews.
But for many of those who believed Hill's testimony that she was sexually harassed by Thomas when they worked together and that he often talked about pornography, McEwen's description of Thomas was further vindication of the evidence they said at the time supported Hill and should have kept Thomas from the court.
"In my view, this closes the case in a way that's very bad for him," said David Brock, author of "The Real Anita Hill," a book attacking Hill and supporting Thomas that he later renounced and said was part of a deliberate attempt by conservatives to smear Hill. "For years, I believed that Thomas perjured himself in his Senate testimony. As I read this today, I believe that even more strongly."
"In the construction of the defense of Thomas, [McEwen] had a key role," said Brock, who now heads the liberal press watchdog group Media Matters. "I was told she was romantically involved with Thomas during the time Anita Hill worked with him. She was continually held out to me as proof he could not have been pressuring Hill to date him."
"While the hearings were going on, I was being placed under a great deal of pressure by not just the people that I knew but also reporters," McEwen said Friday. "I had literally forgotten that Clarence had stacks of porn magazines everywhere and that he had this obsession...It was several years since I'd been a in relationship with him and I was bored with it. ... I was indifferent."
Joel Paul, a University of California law professor who testified on Hill's behalf at the 1991 Senate hearings, said he believes McEwen's story and those of other women who knew Thomas could have killed Thomas's nomination if they had been more widely known. The Senate ultimately confirmed him in a 52-48 vote.
"Thomas was confirmed by the smallest margin in history," noted Paul. "It seems logical to conclude that if two or three more women came along to corroborate the story, it would have tended to shift opinion in favor of Anita Hill's account."
One of Hill's lawyers at the time, Susan Deller Ross of Georgetown University, blamed Vice President Joe Biden - then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee - for refusing to allow testimony by women like McEwen, who said they knew Thomas socially and had experiences that tended to support Hill's story.
"If all the women who were kept from testifying were allowed to testify, it would have made a difference. If everyone had heard all the accounts, it would have begun to ring very differently," Ross said. "But Biden made the decision to limit it to people who knew Thomas in the employment sphere."
McEwen, who once worked for Biden on Capitol Hill, said the senator was well aware that she had been romantically involved with Thomas. She also said Biden was not as tough on Thomas as he could have been.
"I made sure that the senator knew about the relationship that I had with Clarence and that he also knew that Clarence was a frequent visitor to our office in the Russell Building," McEwen told ABC7/WJLA-TV. "Clarence is a very charming person. I always thought that Sen. Biden was charmed by Clarence and, as a result of that, did not pursue matters that could have been pursued."
A spokeswoman for Biden said he had no comment on McEwen's story.
Radio host Armstrong Williams, a longtime defender of Thomas, said McEwen and Thomas were "very good friends." Williams said he likes McEwen and would not attempt to dispute her story, even though he'd seen no indication that Thomas had a penchant for pornography or making odd sexual comments. "There was nothing in his behavior that would ever make me believe that," the radio host said.
"It saddens me to see these things resurrected again, but it was resurrected by [Thomas's] wife," Williams noted. "Obviously, sometimes it's better to let sleeping dogs lie."
Thomas's televised confirmation hearings, at which he complained of being a victim of "a high-tech lynching" riveted the country in the fall of 1991. In response to Hill's testimony, he told the committee:
"If I used that kind of grotesque language with one person, it would seem to me that there would be traces of it throughout the employees who worked closely with me, or the other individuals who heard bits and pieces of it on various levels."
In the phone message that Virginia Thomas left Hill on Oct. 9th, she asked Hill "to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband."
Ross said she was baffled by Virginia Thomas's decision to reignite the long-dormant fight. "I can't understand why she would do such a thing. It can only hurt her husband," Ross said.
Williams also seemed surprised at what has happened in the past two weeks. "Nineteen years later, [McEwen] felt the need to tell this story just as his wife felt the need...to call Anita Hill," said Williams. "These are some strange events."
He said the renewed debate would be painful for Thomas, but that ultimately the recent disclosures won't have much impact.
"Some people who have supported him in the past may have questions, but people will get to pick their sides and stake out their positions and nothing's going to get him to leave. He's staying on the Supreme Court and he'll be there I think until they drag him off for old age," Williams said.