A week ago I was racing through an airport and noticed a crowd of people around a coffee shop television. This was a Saturday afternoon, and I figured it must be a football game.

I was wrong. All those people were watching the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, hanging on every word. I found this at first encouraging. And then kind of sad. For once, in a nation full of trivial pursuit, we, the people, were discussing politics.

But the reason was sex.

That may prove the real shame of the whole Thomas controversy, that it took large breasts, pubic hair and someone named Long Dong Silver to get us even momentarily interested in our law-making process. Face it. Without the sex, this was just another political debate, and most Americans would rather watch soap operas. Only when the hearings became soap opera did those same Americans find their interest, shall we say, aroused?

So enraptured were we with who was lying, however — him or her? Did she want it? Was he after it? — that we overlooked the most important questions: What kind of judge was Thomas? Where did he stand on issues? Why was he nominated in the first place, and did he deserve to be a Supreme Court justice for life — helping shape America for the next 30 to 40 years — based on his record? The answer has nothing to do with pubic hair. Issues forgotten

But that became the focus. Time magazine called the hearing “an ugly circus.” Yet if Hill was theater, she was just another act.

Go back to July, when President Bush first nominated Thomas. He said he was
“picking the best man for the job based on merits.”

Come on. That was surely theater. Black and white groups alike will tell you a 43-year-old judge with a short history on the bench and an even shorter list of written opinion is hardly the best man “based on merits.” There are many more qualified people, of all races and sexes. Bush chose Thomas for two reasons: 1) He liked his conservative views, and 2) Thomas is black. There is nothing inherently wrong with No. 2, by the way. Thomas would take the place of Thurgood Marshall, a black man, who is retiring. It seems only fair in a democratic country that blacks have a voice on the nation’s highest court
(the same holds for Hispanics, Asians and other minority groups).

But wouldn’t it have been better — and more honest — for Bush to say this, much the way Lyndon Johnson told the nation when he appointed Marshall in 1967: “It is the right thing to do, and the right time to do it”?

Instead, Bush began with a song and dance, and it just continued.

Thomas went before the Senate and turned into a clam. He avoided all tough questions. Is this proper behavior for a Supreme Court nominee? Incredibly, Thomas said of Roe vs. Wade, the abortion issue — maybe the biggest reason he was nominated — “I have no opinion.” No opinion? That makes one man in America.

Thomas was acting, too, having been coached by White House handlers in the art of political theater. Why was he so shocked when his opponents played the same game? Soapbox for Senate

When Anita Hill came forward, Thomas suddenly rediscovered his voice. He got angry. He accused the Senate of a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” This argument loses steam when you realize Hill is black. But words such as
“lynching” are tinderboxes. And Thomas knew it.

Meanwhile, Republican senators were enjoying the fact that, for once, they could accuse Democrats of being racist and anti-liberal, and maybe steal some of the black voters who traditionally went the other way. So on prime time TV, we saw a disgraceful display of showmanship, speeches that had far more to do with getting reelected than with wisely selecting a judge. That was the issue, wasn’t it? Wisely selecting a judge?

Too late. The focus, like a circus spotlight, had jumped to one of the sideshows, the one about sex. And there it stayed.

Eventually, Thomas was approved by the narrowest of margins, 52-48. This begged for a heated debate: 1) Shouldn’t becoming a Supreme Court justice require at least a two-thirds majority? 2) Should the Supreme Court have a minimum age? 3) Should we limit the terms of justices? 4) How can we de- politicize the nomination process?

Unfortunately, nobody has sex in these issues, so they went unspoken.

And now Thomas is on the court. We can only hope he shows wisdom, but most Americans will never know, since they rarely read Supreme Court opinions. Next time I see a crowd around an airport TV, it will probably be a touchdown or a porn star on Oprah Winfrey’s show. And maybe the saddest lesson from Thomas-Hill will be just this: Titillation makes us tick.

I wish the Supreme Court could do something about that one.

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