LIFESPRING


Go to The 1970s

Go to Chronology

Go to Main Menu


    The Nominee's Soul Mate

By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 10, 1991; Page F01

ho's afraid of Virginia Thomas? She's a soft-spoken, hard-working daughter of the heartland. A brainy Omaha lawyer who has scaled the sheetrock of professional Washington. A churchgoer who invites homeless people out to lunch. A good friend. A good family. Why the fuss over Mrs. Supreme Court Nominee?

Her critics see her as more than just the supportive spouse who'll accompany her husband, Clarence, today as he begins Senate confirmation hearings. They see a woman with strong opinions on issues that are bound to come before the court. They find in her further grounds for opposing him.

Some women's rights activists are upset by her lobbying against such issues as comparable-worth legislation and the Family Leave Act. Some religious rights groups are troubled by her anti-cult activities in light of her involvement with Lifespring, a controversial motivational group.

Even the color of her skin is being used to determine the content of Clarence Thomas's character. The fact that she is white has drawn criticism from some blacks who see the marriage as evidence that Clarence Thomas has rejected his roots.

"My real question is, Why me?" said Virginia Thomas, when asked for an interview. She has declined to talk with reporters until after the hearings. She's not the story, she said. Yet she is a compelling and persuasive figure.

"The one person {Clarence Thomas} really listens to is Virginia," said longtime friend Evan Kemp, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "He depends on her for advice."

Even the way the two of them came together seems surprising -- at first. Clarence spent his childhood with segregation and bigotry, in a dirt-poor town with no sewers or paved roads. His father abandoned him when he was 2 years old. Virginia grew up in lily-white suburbia; her parents wintered in Florida. Her father, a successful engineer, doted on his children.

But look deeper and you'll find the perfect couple. They both keep five pictures of each other on their desks. Married more than four years, they act "like they're on their honeymoon," one close friend said. "Intellectual soul mates," said another. Ideologically, they are so in sync that they both took stands against comparable worth well before they met.

In their respective careers, the Thomases have embraced the view that women and minorities are hindered, rather than helped, by affirmative action and government programs. True equality is achieved by holding everyone to the same standard, they believe.

"I don't think it's fair to say she's anti-women's rights," said Ricky Silberman, vice chairwoman of the EEOC and a friend of the Thomases. She said Virginia Thomas opposed legislation on comparable worth because it would have involved the government in determining wages, which is "not good for the economy, not good for workers, not good for women."

Virginia Thomas has represented the conservative viewpoint in her jobs as a staffer for a Republican congressman, as spokeswoman at the U.S. Chamber of Congress and as deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Labor.

"Virginia Thomas is not supporting the interests of working women in America by the positions she's taken," said Pat Taylor, president of Business and Professional Women. "She can have only a negative influence on her husband, which is unfortunate because you'd like to believe that women who achieve a position of responsibility and influence would use that position to help women."

"If he is influenced by his wife, a white conservative who lobbied against comparable pay for women, he will be anti-women's issues," wrote USA Today columnist Barbara Reynolds in a July 5 piece. Reynolds, who is black, also is concerned by Thomas's choice of a white wife.

"It may sound bigoted; well, this is a bigoted world and why can't black people be allowed a little Archie Bunker mentality?" Reynolds said later. "Here's a man who's going to decide crucial issues for the country and he has already said no to blacks; he has already said if he can't paint himself white he'll think white and marry a white woman."

Clarence Thomas advocates a colorblind society, and his marriage may well be an example of that philosophy. But others see a different symbolism.

"His marrying a white woman is a sign of his rejection of the black community," said Russell Adams, chairman of Howard University's department of Afro-American studies. "Great justices have had community roots that served as a basis for understanding the Constitution. Clarence's lack of a sense of community makes his nomination troubling."

Some religious leaders are troubled as well. Dean Kelley, the National Council of Churches' counselor on religious liberty, wrote a critique of Clarence Thomas that was used as grounds for his organization's opposition to the Supreme Court nominee. The author did not mention Virginia Thomas in his text, but said in an interview that he was concerned about her involvement in the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), a Chicago-based organization that says it educates the public about "destructive" cults. That involvement, he said, might affect her husband's handling of religious liberty cases if he shares her views on the subject.

Clarence Thomas is not a member of CAN, although he has attended at least one CAN event with his wife, who is a member, according to Cynthia Kisser, the group's executive director.

"The mere fact that she is involved in CAN is chilling in terms of free exercise of religion," said Earl Trent, counsel for the American Baptist Churches. Kelley, among others, says members of the anti-cult organization support forcible deprogramming of religious adherents. CAN denies the charges.

Trent said freedom of religion has come under attack in recent Supreme Court decisions and "a Supreme Court justice's wife who is involved in activities which threaten that freedom makes us uneasy."

Prairie Republican
Uneasy? Chilling? Negative influence?

She is a tall woman, with friendly brown curls, clever blue eyes and a smile that makes you smile. How did this amiable 34-year-old wind up churning so many a gut?

Ginni Thomas grew up in Omaha, the youngest of four children. Her parents, Donald and Marjorie Lamp, were upper-middle-class Republican Party insiders who stressed family and religion at home.

Ginni loved visiting her uncle's farm in Iowa, where she could drive the family tractor. But she was no corn husker. In high school she showed her proclivity for politics, wowing teachers and her classmates in student government, the debate club and the teenage Republican club.

("She was a good student and that's all," her father said before affirming his wariness toward the press and hanging up.)

"Mom was the big politician and Ginni wanted to be like her," said her brother Russell Lamp, 16 years her senior. Marjorie Lamp ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature, served on county and state Republican central committees and was a delegate to national conventions, he said.

Ginni went on to the Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha and earned a BA in business communications and political science. She attended Creighton's law school in the early 1980s and, as always, excelled.

"She was hungrier to learn than most students I've had in 12 years," said Richard Shagrue, a law school professor. Thomas studied constantly, but managed to find time to help organize several campaigns for local Republicans, among them Hal Daub, a friend of the Lamps. Freshman congressman Daub arrived in Washington in January 1981 with his star volunteer in tow.

Thomas thrived in Daub's office, said her then-office manager, Jack Horner. On Ginni's first day, Horner checked in early, at 8 a.m., to show her that he and his staff were a hard-working crew. But when he arrived at the office, he found Thomas busy at her desk. "She had been there since the crack of dawn," he said.

Thomas worked her way up to legislative director. She had a great rapport with Daub and was "in sync" with the congressman's opinions, including his antiabortion stance, Horner said.

"She was exuberant, enthusiastic and very excited," said Mark Mackee, a fellow staffer. "It was the early Reagan years and she was in the middle of it."

The Lifespring Experience
She also was in the middle of a mess.

During the early '80s, Thomas enrolled in Lifespring, a self-help course that challenges students to take responsibility for their lives. Most of the program's 300,000 graduates have found it be a favorable experience. There are, however, a small percentage of clients who are deeply disturbed by Lifespring's methods, which involve intense emotional self-examination.

Thomas told a Washington Post reporter in 1987 that she was confused and troubled by some of Lifespring's exercises. In one session, trainees listened to "The Stripper" while disrobing to skimpy bikinis and bathing suits. The group stood in a U-shaped line, made fun of fat people's bodies and riddled one another with sexual questions.

"At first Ginni was feeling pretty good and enthusiastic about Lifespring," recalls her minister, the Rev. Rodney Wilmoth of Omaha's St. Paul United Methodist Church, who corresponded with Thomas at the time. "But later she was concerned about its influence and began to sense the organization had a cultlike mentality."

Terry Nelson, vice president of Lifespring, said the group is not a cult and that Virginia Thomas's account of the training exercises has been taken out of context. "Are our people enthusiastic, intense and emotional? Yes," Nelson said.

Bronson Levin, a clinical psychologist in Bailey's Crossroads and a Lifespring graduate who specializes in treating what he calls "casualties," said people who are not prepared for the intense emotional experience of Lifespring or who have hidden traumas tend to become overwhelmed as childhood memories come thundering back to them during training.

"I remember Ginni felt manipulated by the group," Wilmoth said. "She was losing her own freedom of who she was."

It took Thomas months to break fully from Lifespring's "high-pressure tactics," she told The Post in 1987. "I had intellectually and emotionally gotten myself so wrapped up with this group that I was moving away from my family and friends and the people I work with. My best friend came to visit me and I was preaching at her using that rough attitude they teach you."

Finally, Daub, Thomas's boss, confronted her. "We talked about it and ultimately she thought it through and took action to extricate herself," Daub said.

Thomas contacted Kevin Garvey, a Connecticut stockbroker turned counselor, who gets a steady stream of referrals from psychologists and physicians.

"I got a phone call from her asking for help," Garvey recalled. He met with her from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Hamburger Hamlet in Georgetown on a Sunday afternoon in 1984, he said, and left feeling satisfied that the young woman would be all right. "The picture of her as a totally destroyed individual is not true," he said.

Thomas felt guilty about breaking her Lifespring "commitment," she said in the 1987 interview. She hid out in another part of the country to avoid constant phone calls from fellow trainees who felt it was their responsibility to make Thomas keep her commitment to Lifespring.

Her friends describe her as levelheaded, thoughtful, smart. Her involvement with Lifespring baffles them. But at least one close friend had an inkling.

"There's a kind of naivete about her, a kind of innocence you have to be careful with," said Wilmoth, her minister. "Ginni is a very, very trusting person -- she once invited a homeless man out to lunch with her in a fancy Washington restaurant -- I'm sure that's one of the reasons she was very susceptible to this group. She was looking for spiritual growth and trusted those people would do the right thing."

Cult Awareness
Since 1985 Ginni Thomas has been a public advocate against cult activities. She has attended Cult Awareness Network conventions, including the 1990 convention in Chicago, according to Patricia Ryan, who is the organization's president and the daughter of Leo Ryan, the congressman killed at Jonestown, Guyana. Thomas has spoken on panels and organized anti-cult workshops for congressional staffers in 1986 and 1988.

"Ginni feels she has been personally victimized and feels a responsibility to educate others," Ryan said.

CAN, however, has had its own share of trouble. Religious liberty advocates accuse it of supporting deprogrammers who kidnap members of religious groups and coerce them to undergo treatment. CAN's adversaries have included fundamentalist Christian splinter groups, the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church.

CAN officials maintain that cults tried to stifle Thomas's activities while she worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a labor relations attorney during the mid-'80s. Fred Krebs, Thomas's supervisor, confirmed receiving letters objecting to her involvement in anti-cult work. He declined to name the group that sent the letters but said, "Ginni was very careful not to identify herself with the Chamber while pursuing her anti-cult activities."

CAN officials said cult groups are trying to use Virginia Thomas's involvement with the network to torpedo her husband's nomination.

"If Ginni is the wife of a Supreme Court justice, it's probably a little scary for the cults," Ryan said.

The year Ginni Lamp married Clarence Thomas, now 43, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began taking an interest in the role of new age groups in the workplace. The EEOC, then headed by Clarence Thomas, started work on a policy statement governing "new age training programs which conflict with employees' religious beliefs," according to Cathleen Courtney, the EEOC staff attorney who drafted the memo in May 1987.

It was the same month the couple were married.

Virginia Thomas was very concerned about such training programs, according to Peter Georgiades, a Pittsburgh lawyer who has filed cases against Lifespring and who met Thomas through their anti-cult activities.

"Ginni was interested in the problem of employers effectively compelling employees to participate in training which was inimical to their religious beliefs," Georgiades said. "She would ask me about it, to think about the problem and possible solutions."

Clarence Thomas signed an EEOC "policy guidance" explaining the legal rights of employees who object to such training in September 1988. Virginia Thomas was thrilled, Georgiades recalls. No one, from top EEOC officials on down, could state with certainty where the initiative for the policy had come from, although Courtney suggested it may have been prompted by press reports or field complaints. Asked about the policy guidance, Ginni Thomas said she was familiar with it, but declined to comment on its genesis.

"Virginia is very smart and a very good lobbyist," said Evan Kemp, current chairman of the EEOC. "She might have discussed it with him, but even though {her husband} is madly in love with her, he is very independent."

Kemp said he did not think Clarence Thomas signed off on the policy because of his wife's anti-cult stance: "He wouldn't even do that for his grandfather."

Comparable Views
Ginni Thomas had plenty of other issues to fight for during those years, from 1985 to 1989, when she served as a labor relations attorney at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She represented the interests of the business community at congressional hearings on such issues as comparable worth, affirmative action and federal child care legislation.

Acting on behalf of the Chamber, Thomas led the opposition to the Family and Medical Leave Act, which would have required companies with 50 employees or more to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave and continued medical benefits to employees at the time of childbirth or a medical emergency. While Thomas's friends call her a firm believer in women's rights, her public activities have antagonized many women's groups.

In June of 1985, at least a year before she met Clarence Thomas, Ginni Lamp found herself allied with the EEOC chairman in his rejection of comparable worth. The fact that women don't receive equal pay for different jobs that require equal training and responsibility doesn't mean they suffer from discrimination, Clarence Thomas said. "We found that sole reliance on a comparison of the intrinsic value of dissimilar jobs -- which command different wages in the market -- does not prove a violation of Title VII" of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Clarence Thomas told a news conference.

Lamp, speaking for the Chamber, praised the EEOC decision.

"Rather than using our civil rights laws to identify and address discrimination as it exists in the workplace," she said, "comparable-worth advocates want to label a social phenomenon -- the fact that women on average make less than men on average -- as 'discrimination' and then use our civil rights laws for purposes for which they were never intended."

A perfect match. All they needed now was a boardroom table across which to set eyes on each other.

Love-Struck
That table materialized at an Anti-Defamation League meeting in New York.

During the spring of 1986, they both turned up at an ADL civil rights colloquium.

"Anybody who followed EEOC policy at the time would have read about Ginni in the papers and thought she was a middle-aged woman in a power suit and Oxfords," said Ricky Silberman, vice chairwoman of the EEOC. "And there she sat -- I was thunderstruck -- this very beautiful young woman."

At the end of the session, Thomas and Lamp slipped away and traveled back to Washington together. Three months later, Thomas took Silberman out to lunch at Clyde's in Georgetown and told her, "'I want you to know that I'm in love,' " Silberman recalled. They were engaged soon after and married by the following summer.

"She's made him a much happier man," Silberman said.

She calms him down. She lights him up. He makes her feel like the most important person on the planet. He jokes. She laughs. The Thomases' friends agree: They are thrilled to have found each other.

In a 1986 Good Housekeeping article that named Virginia Lamp as one of "28 Young Women of Promise," Lamp said that her ultimate goal was to run for Congress. Her biggest obstacle, however, was "finding a husband who'll be supportive of a woman in public life."

"She'd always been plain too busy for romance," said her best friend from law school, Jody Agers. "Clarence was one of her first serious relationships."

Clarence Thomas also seemed plain too busy for romance after he divorced his first wife, Kate Ambush, in 1984. ("It was an amiable divorce," said Ambush's father, Nelson, "no knock-down, drag-out fight.")

"You need to find a wife," Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) teased Thomas, Jet magazine reported in 1987, after Thurmond finished Thomas's confirmation hearings for the EEOC. Jet named Clarence Thomas one of Washington's most eligible bachelors.

When Clarence Thomas found the perfect bachelorette, and the couple announced their engagement, they raised eyebrows and blood pressure. This was, however, primarily among those who hadn't met the love-struck pair.

"I can guarantee you I was surprised when I found out she was going with a black man," Ginni Thomas's uncle Ralph Knop said from his farm in Iowa. "It was unusual for us."

"But he was so nice, we forgot he was black," her aunt Opal added, "and he treated her so well, all of his other qualities made up for his being black."

At the wedding, which was held in a largely white Methodist church in Omaha, "there was some buzz in the congregation because people didn't realize he was black and there was a sort of a 'Huh? Oh,' " recalled the Rev. Wilmoth.

But friends and neighbors said the interracial nature of their marriage is irrelevant. They said Ginni Thomas's family welcomed Clarence Thomas from the beginning.

"If you have any feelings about black color, you forget about it as soon as you start talking to him," her father, Donald Lamp, was quoted as saying in the Omaha World-Herald.

Ginni Thomas's color is an issue to some blacks, however. "There's a lot of controversy about an emergent group of black male conservatives who have exhibited a tendency toward interracial marriage," said Ronald Walters, chairman of the Howard University political science department. He cited author Shelby Steele and economist Thomas Sowell as other examples. "White conservatives are {Clarence Thomas's} ideological bedfellows, and his white conservative wife is literally his bedfellow."

Home, Church and Family
Does that matter? The question of the degree that spouses influence each other's public positions is a long-debated subject in Washington.

"I'm married to a federal judge and he influences me and I influence him," said Silberman, a close friend of the Thomases and the wife of D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Laurence Silberman. "That's part of being close to someone -- we certainly have discussions about cases."

Silberman said the Thomases are "great intellectual soul mates who talk a lot about ideas and social policy."

The couple live in a gray, three-bedroom house in Alexandria, in a new Everyburb development, with Clarence Thomas's 19-year-old son, Jamal, from his first marriage. "Jamal said at first when they got married he wasn't sure it would work out," said Gabe Bicoy, the Thomases' 17-year-old neighbor. "But now he thinks Ginni's cool and she takes him shopping."

Jamal, a high school football star as his father was, left recently for Fork Union Military Academy, a military prep school in Fork Union, Va., affiliated with the Baptist General Association of Virginia.

Although Clarence Thomas was raised a Roman Catholic, the couple regularly attend the Truro Episcopal Church, a charismatic congregation in Fairfax. A majority of the congregants oppose abortion, according to Gordon Klooster, the church administrator. A home was established on church grounds for pregnant women who decide against abortion. And the preacher occasionally delivers a antiabortion sermon, Klooster said. On Friday nights, the church holds a "prayer-and-praise service," a casual program that includes community singing, speaking in tongues and prophesying in the spirit of Christ. The Thomases are not Friday night regulars but they have attended within the past two months, Klooster said.

On weekends lately, she has been tending to the garden and mowing the lawn while he has been sitting in the garage wearing a T-shirt and shorts, hunched over a stack of legal books, cramming for the hearings. They prefer to garden together, neighbors say.

They like to drive to work together. She calls him Batman because of his new black Corvette. He sends her flowers when her job at the Labor Department gets stressful. She hauled a four-foot card across the street to the federal courthouse for their anniversary. He pops over to Labor during the day just to say hi.

They go on morning runs. They take after-dinner walks. Neighbors say you can see them in the evening talking, walking up the hill. Hand in hand.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company

Go to The 1970s | Go to the Chronology | Go to the Cult Controversy Main Menu