Justice Thomas Takes On His Critics
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 1998; Page A1 He was on the podium one day this summer, challenging a group of black lawyers who complained he had forgotten his roots, when Justice Clarence Thomas softly confessed, "It pains me ... more deeply than any of you can imagine, to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm."
A few weeks later, before a sympathetic audience of black conservatives, he began to weep after mentioning a friend whose reputation was damaged during Thomas's explosive 1991 confirmation hearings. This old college chum, a man who introduced Thomas to his eventual accuser, Anita Hill, "was trashed in order to destroy me." Wiping the moisture from his face, Thomas added, "That, my friends, was wrong."
Just last week Thomas was lashing out at "smart-aleck commentators and self-professed know-it-alls" whose only real purpose, he said, is to sow the seeds of cynicism.
In the seven years since he was named to the nation's highest court, Thomas quickly became, and has steadfastly remained, its most controversial member. His defiance of mainstream black political views has made him a frequent target of attack from the left, and has led many of his critics to question his character in searing, personal tones.
Yet for a man whose name is among the most recognized in America, and whose confirmation ordeal is such a part of the culture that President Clinton mentioned it in his grand jury testimony broadcast Monday, the public knows little of the man since that confirmation. He rarely asks a question from the bench, grants no interviews to the mainstream press, and crafts legalistic opinions that seldom expose his personality.
But now as he enters his eighth court term next month, Thomas is emerging from his shell. He is speaking out more, taking on his critics, and showing a willingness to remove the covering that has made him such an enigma.
While he has long held true to his judicial conservatism, only now is he fully giving his reasons and defending his right to say it. And with uncharacteristic bluntness, Thomas has shown a new willingness to reveal personal conflicts, vulnerabilities and glimpses of his daily life.
Before the convention of black conservatives, Thomas quipped that in his new role as father to a 6-year-old he and his wife recently adopted, he hopes not to repeat the unyielding toughness of his own grandfather. "I grew up in a household that had some very strict rules. We did not read Dr. Spock."
In speech after speech in recent weeks, Thomas has been bolder with his message that there is no single way to think if you are black, and that it is racist for African Americans to force ideological conformity on him. He too has been stung by race discrimination, he will not regard blacks as victims. And he will not be deterred by critics who say he is merely following the lead of other justices or that he is filled with self-hatred.
Thomas is turning the tables on those who claim that he has betrayed his African American past. In his speeches, he says he knows there are those who believe he cannot think for himself, that he simply follows the course laid out by other court conservatives. It is his critics, he says, who engage in "self-hatred."
"Isn't it time to move on?" he asks the 1,200 people attending a late July convention of the National Bar Association, the nation's largest organization of black lawyers. "Isn't it time to realize that being angry with me solves no problems?"
It's a dramatic public challenge from the besieged man who sat alone before the Senate Judiciary Committee in one of the most sensational confirmations in the nation's history. Those hearings over Hill's charges that Thomas sexually harassed her represented in part the culmination of clashes Thomas has had with liberals for almost 20 years.
A young, black, conservative on the move, Thomas came to Washington in 1979 and was soon swept up in the new Reagan administration. He was only 33 when he was named assistant secretary of education for civil rights in 1981. The following year, President Ronald Reagan made him chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a position Thomas would keep for eight years, constantly tussling with civil rights activists who accused him of "selling out" because of his opposition to affirmative action.
President George Bush appointed Thomas to the D.C. Circuit appeals court in 1990, and one year later, when the nation's first black justice, Thurgood Marshall, retired, Bush singled out Thomas as "the best qualified" person for the bench.
Marshall, a singular figure in the struggle for black civil rights, had been the lead lawyer in a series of cases culminating in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case. He had masterminded legal attacks on segregation in public schools, housing and voting, then became the nation's first black solicitor general, before being appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the high court in 1967.
The contrast between liberal bulwark Marshall and conservative Thomas immediately made Thomas's nomination a cauldron of racial politics. Then came the sexual harassment charges from former University of Oklahoma law professor Hill and the nationally televised hearings that transformed gender politics and sexual relations at work. The committee hearings were inconclusive, and the Senate confirmed Thomas 52 to 48, the closest Supreme Court confirmation vote in more than a century.
Thomas categorically denied Hill's charges and called the hearings "a high-tech lynching." Once confirmed, he retreated into his work and the cloister of the court became his life. Thomas told friends he read no newspapers and for many years work was his refuge. But slowly over the years, Thomas began to emerge.
The Thomas on public view through recent appearances, televised across the country by C-SPAN, is more confident and looser. He's grayer and heftier, and willing to make jokes about his expanding waistline.
But if he is more at ease with himself and his emotions, Thomas is also more willing to stand up for himself. He is not "deaf" to the history of slavery, he has told audiences, or unaffected by his roots in the Deep South. But the native of Pin Point, Ga., says that does not mean he is going to embrace the solution of racial preferences.
Blacks should not be singled out as especially needy. "I do not believe that kneeling is a position of strength," he said. "Nor do I believe that begging is an effective tactic." In his rulings, Thomas has voted against affirmative action, minority voting districts, and a school desegregation plan.
He knows he angers many black leaders, but "life is not worth living without principles." Thomas says he wants to look himself in the mirror and look his grown son, Jamal, in the eye.
Thomas's critics are not consoled.
"He is the most powerful black man in America and he consistently exercises that power in a way that does grave injury to the most vulnerable black citizens in America," said Roger Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University and longtime civil rights advocate. "I don't know why anyone should get over it. I didn't like it 10 years ago. I don't like it today."
Friends have no single explanation for Thomas's bold rejoinder to his critics. They point to a combination of the sheer passage of time and Thomas's growth over seven years, the positive response of audiences, the new political climate focused on President Clinton's sex scandal, and in the justice's own Northern Virginia home, adoption of a great-nephew named Mark.
"He is more comfortable with himself," said C. Boyden Gray, a Thomas friend and former counsel in the Bush White House. "He is doing more speaking. He will go both into the lion's den and into the lamb's den."
"He has healed to the point that he does not internalize a lot of things," said his longtime friend, conservative commentator Armstrong Williams. "He has his swagger back. He has his groove back."
Thomas's tenure on the court has no doubt pumped his confidence. He is grateful for the "civility" among the justices and their support when he has been invited to speak by a group and factions within the group have protested or sought to renege. "These very same colleagues were the first ones to stand up and say, 'That's not right,' " Thomas said.
The past months also have been a watershed in changing the symbols of alleged sexual impropriety among Washington's powers. Now Hill's allegation that Thomas harassed her with pornographic talk seems small compared to former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky's story of oral sex with the president. The difference, Thomas's detractors still point out, is that Hill said she did not welcome the alleged advances; Lewinsky said she did.
Inquiries come from the audiences too. When someone at the National Restaurant Association convention asked last week what he thought about the uproar over independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report, Thomas winced. He said he did not want to answer, but then he suggested he would honor the institution of the executive, "The president of the United States is the president of the United States."
Friends say Thomas also has been reenergized by the great-nephew that he and his wife, Virginia, have adopted. "It's given him a new outlook," Gray said. "The justice is younger in spirit and everything else."
"You can hear these 6-year-old feet going all over the place," Thomas told one group. And he observed that he is exactly the same age 50 that his grandfather was when he took in 8-year-old Clarence Thomas because his mother couldn't support him and his siblings.
"I didn't realize my grandfather was such a young man then," Thomas quipped before a conference of Headway Magazine, a journal for black conservatives. As is the case when Thomas speaks, that audience Sept. 12 was rapt. When he had trouble composing himself as he recalled his friend Gil Hardy, who died in a freak boating accident in 1989, people in the audience whispered, "Take your time."
Then, someone shouted out, "We love you, Justice Thomas." And the crowd rose to its feet.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company