Written by Matt Stevens
Joe Biden said this week that he takes “responsibility” for the way Anita Hill was treated when she testified in the 1991 confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas, the latest in a series of attempts to quell Democratic resentment over his handling of the hearings and refusal to directly apologize to Hill.
The remarks, which aired on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday, came just days after Biden opened his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.
As decades-old questions about his oversight of the hearings continue to swirl, fresh concerns have also arisen about Biden’s attempt to mitigate a political vulnerability by calling Hill shortly before his entrance into the race. His camp has said the former vice president sought to express “his regret for what she endured,” but in an interview with The New York Times last week, Hill said the call had left her feeling deeply unsatisfied.
Still, Biden’s comments Tuesday were the latest in a recent series of incremental concessions, as he has seemed to move closer to unconditional contrition for the aggressive questioning Hill faced from the all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee about claims that Thomas had sexually harassed her.
Here’s a look at what Biden has said about the matter, and how his view of his role in the hearings has evolved and shifted over the years.
October 1991: ‘I don’t want to be a judge’
By the end of the second day of the 1991 hearings, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee had begun a fierce assault on Hill and called her truthfulness into question. Thomas had also strongly denied any inappropriate behavior, accusing the committee of conducting a “high-tech lynching.”
In short, the hearing had devolved into a spectacle, and the committee’s performance was drawing significant criticism. Biden, the committee’s chairman, offered a long, impassioned defense in response.
“I don’t want to be a judge,” he said. “I hate this job. But all of my colleagues here are telling everybody how awful the process is. Let me be completely blunt about it: It’s like democracy. It’s a lousy form of government, except no one’s figured out another way.”
June 1992: ‘I erred in not attacking the attackers’
In a lengthy interview eight months after the hearing, Biden was more contrite, worrying aloud to The Washington Post that he had not “attacked the attackers” of Hill “more frequently and consistently.”
But he also said he could not have acted differently toward Thomas without violating “the basic values embodied in our constitutional system.”
“That’s what makes me mad about the Republicans,” Biden said at the time. “What they do is they put you in a position on so many matters of principle that in order to fight with them and have a chance of winning, you have to either have the ability to go right above the issue, or you’ve got to do it the way they do it and disregard the rules.”
November 2017: ‘So sorry that she had to go through what she went through’
Many years later, appearing at Glamour’s Women of the Year event in New York with his wife, Jill Biden, the former vice president emphasized that he “believed Anita Hill” and had “voted against Clarence Thomas.”
“What I do feel badly about is the bad taste that got left in the mouth of some of the people around Anita Hill, and maybe even Anita,” Biden said, according to HuffPost.
Pressed on the fact that Hill had previously said she felt the process was unfair, Biden said he was “so sorry if she believes that” and “so sorry that she had to go through what she went through.”
December 2017: ‘I owe her an apology’
In an interview with Teen Vogue in 2017, Biden specifically acknowledged having regrets about his failure to “tone down the attacks” on Hill by Republicans, while at the same time suggesting that, even as the committee’s chairman, he did not have much power to do so.
“As much as I tried to intervene, I did not have the power to gavel them out of order,” he said. “I tried to be like a judge and only allow a question that would be relevant to ask.”
“I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” he said. “I owe her an apology.”
March 2019: ‘I wish I could have done something’
Weeks before he would announce his candidacy for president, Biden took the stage at an event in New York City and gave an emotional speech in which he again expressed regret.
“She faced a committee that didn’t fully understand what the hell this was all about, he said. “To this day, I regret I couldn’t give her the kind of hearing she deserved. I wish I could have done something.”
His lament, which echoed his previous argument about having been constrained in what he could do as chairman, rang hollow to some who said Biden had considerable influence over how the hearing was conducted.
April 25, 2019: Sharing his ‘regret’
On the first day of his presidential campaign, Biden’s campaign disclosed that he had called Hill weeks earlier and shared “his regret for what she endured.”
But in an interview with The New York Times the day before, Hill declined to characterize Biden’s words to her as an apology.
“I cannot be satisfied by simply saying, ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you,’” Hill said. “I will be satisfied when I know that there is real change and real accountability and real purpose.”
April 26, 2019: ‘I’m sorry for the way she got treated’
The next day, Biden appeared on ABC’s “The View,” and repeatedly declined to deliver a straightforward apology to Hill, even after being nudged to do so.
Joy Behar, one of the hosts, suggested that Biden say to Hill, “‘I’m sorry for the way I treated you’ — not for the way you were treated.”
“I’m sorry for the way she got treated,” Biden responded, haltingly. “If you go back to what I said, and didn’t say, I don’t think I treated her badly.”
Describing his phone call with Hill, Biden added: “I said privately what I’ve said publicly. I’m sorry she was treated the way she was treated. I wish we could have figured out a better way to get this done. I did everything in my power to do what I thought was within the rules to be able to stop things.”
April 29, 2019: ‘I take responsibility’
Asked again Monday about the situation by Robin Roberts of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Biden went further than he had days earlier by claiming responsibility for the way the hearing unfolded.
“I believed her from the very beginning, but I was chairman. She did not get a fair hearing. She did not get treated well. That’s my responsibility,” Biden said in the interview, which aired Tuesday. “As the committee chairman, I take responsibility that she did not get treated well. I take responsibility for that.”
Biden also said he had apologized to Hill, though Roberts reminded him that Hill had declined to characterize his words during their phone call as such.
“I apologized for it,” Biden insisted. “I apologize again because, look, here’s the deal. She just did not get treated fair across the board. The system did not work.”