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On Biden and Anita Hill, a generational divide emerges among voters

Joe Biden addresses Anita Hill hearing

When then-Senate Judiciary Chairman Joe Biden gaveled into order the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1991, many of his current presidential campaign supporters were at home in diapers. 

Now almost 30 years later, Democratic voters young and old watched the 76-year-old former vice president apologize for how his committee treated Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of sexually harassing her. "As the committee chairman I take responsibility that she did not get treated well," Biden told ABC earlier this week. 

Biden noted he also called Hill and expressed "his regret for what she endured," according to the New York Times. Hill, however, told the paper she remains unconvinced that Biden has taken responsibility for what happened. "I will be satisfied when I know that there is real change and real accountability and real purpose," she said.

Hill's allegations against Thomas, and Biden's handling of the hearings, were a major political scandal at the time and have haunted the former senator ever since. The confirmation proceedings have been the subject of numerous books, articles, and movies, including a 2016 HBO production starring Greg Kinnear as Biden and Kerry Washington as Hill. 

At Biden's first campaign stops in Iowa and Pennsylvania this week, the hearings still resonated with voters -- particularly younger ones, a number of whom said it could cost Biden their support. 

Older voters, however, appeared generally more forgiving of Biden, and argued that it was time to move on.  

Carline Harris, 64, who said at a Des Moines, Iowa, rally on Wednesday that she is "all in" for Biden, though she called the confirmation process "not [Biden's] finest moment."

"But what I also believe in is people learn as they go. I think about how the times were a lot of us had the wrong ideas about people's roles and power and speaking to power," Harris added, "I don't think it defines him for me."

Sitting along the side wall at Biden's Pittsburgh campaign kickoff, 83-year-old Laurene Bowser was more blunt. 

"I think that is absolutely ridiculous," Bowser said. She added that she thinks reviving the Hill issue is part of an effort to "blackball" Biden because he is such a strong candidate. 

"Is there criticism? Yes. Do people evolve? Absolutely," said Roger Levine, 59, who attended a Biden rally in Pittsburgh and said he is undecided on who to support in the Democratic primary.

"I think if you hold people accountable, they have to be accountable for what they did, but you also have to look at their actions since then," Levine said. 

Biden speaks frequently of his record since the Thomas hearings, including how he spearheaded the passage of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Several rally goers also spoke highly of Biden's efforts to push through that legislation, and his role leading the Obama administration's response to campus sexual assault with the "It's On Us" campaign

"When he was elected as vice president, I was actually impressed with him at that time for his work with the Violence Against Women Act," Stephanie Fellows, 35, told CBS News at the Pittsburgh launch. "But I was too young at the time of the Anita Hill hearings to know that that occurred. I didn't know that that occurred until recently."

Fellows, a grocery store employee and member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said the Hill hearings still mattered to her. "When it comes down to, you know, the people who are supposed to protect women--our lawmakers--there's no excuse," she said. At the same time, she attended the rally to hear what Biden had to say. 

Some older Democrats said they remember watching the Anita Hill hearing and don't recall being angry with Biden. 

"I thought it was really brave of [Anita Hill] to stand up...at this hearing in front of all of these men and come forward," said retired elementary school teacher Kathy Karon, 68, at a Biden event in Iowa City, Iowa, "But honestly I don't remember at the time thinking, 'Joe Biden, you jerk. You are not treating her well.'"  

"So that would not influence me today," Karon added about her potential support to caucus for Biden. 

But for some young voters, their affectionate-yet-weary opinion of Biden stems from coming of age during a different conversation about sexual harassment. 

"I think it's especially relevant now in the #MeToo movement," Scarlett Cao, 26, said at the Iowa City brewery where Biden spoke. "I mean the way Anita Hill was treated 30 years ago was kind of abhorrent, actually."

Jared Manternach, 24, who was also at the Iowa City event, agreed. "Every report that I have seen has said it was a half-hearted apology and that Anita Hill did not feel it was sufficient. It seems like she is the one who we need to trust and accept her opinion."

"If it wasn't good enough for her, it probably isn't good enough for us," Manternach added.  

Rachel Schenkeo, 27, said at the Iowa City event she was a "huge Biden fan" but that Biden's history with Anita Hill "is something that might tip the scales if it were a contest against a similarly qualified, similarly likeable candidate." Beyond apologizing more, Schenkeo said she would "love" to see a concrete commitment that Biden would appoint more women to his presidential cabinet. 

For Biden's biggest fans, however, what happened during the 1991 hearings shouldn't matter to voters in 2020. 

Iowa State Rep. Rick Olson, a long-time Biden supporter, called the latest criticism of Biden a "non-issue," "history," and hypothesized that much of the electorate "don't even know who Anita Hill is." 

And if Biden clinches the Democratic nomination, Olson said that his behavior would contrast well with President Trump's. 

"If the litmus paper test on who you are going to vote for and who you're going to support is somebody that is derogatory to people, somebody that insults women, somebody that pays big bucks to buy his way out of contentious situations -- if that that's the litmus paper test, I think Joe Biden will serve us well."