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John Ashcroft, Clarence Thomas
Flunk Same Lie Detector Test ...

Sixteen years ago Missouri governor John Ashcroft interviewed a health expert named Paul Offner to head the state’s Department of Social Services. Governor Ashcroft’s first question was, “Mr. Offner, do you have the same sexual preference as most men?”

Mr. Offner remembers answering that he was a regular guy all right--but he still didn’t get the job. He went on to become a Democratic state legislator in Wisconsin, however, and is now a professor at Georgetown University.

John Ashcroft’s memory of the interview is different. He says he “cannot imagine” having asked such a question, inasmuch as “sexual orientation has never been something that I’ve used in hiring in any of the jobs, in any of the offices, I’ve held.”

No doubt the attorney general-designate would easily pass a lie detector test on the matter. No doubt Professor Offner could pass one, too. Each man’s brain, like yours and mine, is hardwired to massage the past into whatever version best serves the present needs of the host organism.

Thus it is not useful to accuse either man of lying. But Mr. Ashcroft will be in charge of enforcing laws forbidding anti-gay discrimination in government hiring, and so it would be useful to know what he really did say on that day in 1985.

For this we must apply a test I first developed during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s 1991 hearings on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is the Pubic Hair Test.

Fans of political theater will recall that Professor Anita Hill had charged her former boss with a pattern of sexual harassment which included showing her a Coke can with a pubic hair sticking to it. Judge Thomas swore, no doubt truthfully as the truth is vouchsafed unto him, that he had never in his life done such an ungentlemanly thing.

How could we, the millions of spectators at this morality play, know what to think? Was it the stern federal judge who was telling the truth, or was it the demure law professor? Along with thousands of others, no doubt, I applied the principles that comprise the Pubic Hair Test:

Could Professor Hill could have made up a story so peculiar? In other words, was there anything in the accuser’s much-investigated background to suggest that she was a pathological liar? Did she suffer from hallucinations? Was she “creative?” Perhaps even an aspiring novelist?

And if she were such a pathetic fantast, as the Republicans seemed to think, would the Coke can invention be more destructive to her presumed enemy than any other lie she could just as easily have dreamed up?

No to the first question. Professor Hill seemed depressingly literal and humorless. It was hard to imagine her engaged in a flight of fancy. The only suggestion to the contrary came from a young black man who seemed principally interested in reciting his resume on national TV. He thought Professor Hill had imagined that he was attracted to her, whereas she was really attracted to him, poor thing. This was a textbook case of projection, and could hardly have seemed plausible even to Orrin Hatch.

And no to the second. The tale of the pubic hair and the Coke can was so meaningless and bizarre that simple-minded listeners (and there were several among the senators) might well have rejected it as a lie which cast doubt on the rest of her story. To do maximum damage, a clever accuser would have shut up about that Coke can and stuck to such old standbys as indecent exposure, fondling, and dirty pictures.

The Pubic Hair Test therefore indicated with zero probability of error that this particular woman could not and would not have invented this particular senseless, incomprehensible story.

God knows whose pubic hair that was, or what the future Supreme Court justice thought its presence on a Coke can signified, or what made him imagine that his weird performance might be seductive, but the incident plainly happened pretty much the way Professor Hill said it did.

Moving right along, we now apply the Pubic Hair Test to the clashing memories of General Ashcroft and Professor Offner. What are the chances that a vengeful Paul Offner would have invented such an odd and memorable construction as, “Do you have the same sexual preference as most men?” The answer happens to work out to exactly 11,254,612 to one--by a curious coincidence, the same odds as those against O.J. Simpson being innocent.

On the other hand, what are the chances that just such a queer circumlocution might occur to a smooth, smug, sanctimonious priss who hated homosexuals so much that he couldn’t even bring himself to say the word?

January, 2001


Copyright © 2004 by Jerome Doolittle