Who would have thought there would be more to say about Clarence Thomas's tumultuous confirmation to the Supreme Court? Countless words have been spent in newspapers, books and films on his nomination and the rowdy Senate hearings that captivated the nation in 1991.
But the man himself has something to add.
Last month at a speech in Kansas City, Thomas chronicled what happened in the days leading up to President George Bush's announcement that he wanted Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall. The nation's first black justice had announced on June 27 that he was going to retire after 24 years on the bench.
"That afternoon at about 4 o'clock, I was spirited to the situation room at the Justice Department," Thomas recalled to the group of federal judges and lawyers who gathered for an annual 8th Circuit judicial conference. "It is a soundproof room, a secure room and it is a bizarre feeling. . . . "
"I was asked perfunctory questions. And when I say perfunctory questions, I mean perfunctory. 'Has anyone criticized you and your wife because of interracial marriage?' "
Thomas said he didn't want to reveal the answer he gave, but said it was "prescient," suggesting he continues to believe the criticism he endured during the ensuing hearings was motivated by racism. After Anita Hill accused the nominee of sexual harassment, Thomas denied the charges and called the Senate hearing "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."
Thomas, whose speech was televised on C-SPAN, said he wanted to "clarify" the process that led up to his nomination, then talked about what happened the next day, Friday, June 28: "I was spirited to the White House, by way of a tunnel from the Treasury building."
"It was kind of clandestine, surreptitious. I kind of liked that. Sort of like a James Bond movie. I don't know why. I've never seen a James Bond movie. The movies were still segregated when James Bond came out. So I'm still protesting the James Bond movies."
Thomas laughed a bit, as did his audience. He then recalled the seemingly interminable wait at the White House.
"I sat there for a number of hours," Thomas said. "And I was told that if I wasn't appointed that day I wouldn't be nominated. So I kept my fingers crossed that I wouldn't be nominated."
And, indeed, Thomas wasn't nominated that day. He said he heard the nominee might be Emilio Garza, a judge in Texas who had been named to a federal trial court by Ronald Reagan and then elevated to the 5th Circuit appeals court by Bush in early 1991. "Better him than me," Thomas said he thought.
"On Saturday, my wife and I went to Annapolis to celebrate my not being nominated," he said, and joked that he was "off the hook." The next day, Sunday, he went to his office at the D.C. Circuit appeals court, a post that Bush had named him to a year earlier, to catch up on some work. One of his law clerks barged in and said, "Kennebunkport is on the line," referring to Bush's Maine vacation home.
When Thomas picked up the line, Bush said, "Can you come to Kennebunkport to have lunch with me tomorrow to discuss that Supreme Court thing?" Thomas's recounting of Bush's characteristically casual way with words drew chuckles from his audience.
The next day, July 1, Thomas flew out of Andrews Air Force Base and was spirited into Bush's compound. Thomas said that when he first saw Barbara Bush, she said "Congratulations." "And my heart sank. And from then on, it was surreal. . . . It was an out-of-body experience."
Of his meeting with the president, Thomas said, "He asked me a couple of questions. 'Can you and your family survive the confirmation?' Cavalierly, I said yes." Then Thomas paused and said with a sigh to his Kansas City audience, "I was lucky to get through that one."
Bush had a second question: " 'If you are nominated to the court, can you call them as you see them?' To that, I answered yes. Then he said, 'If you go on the Supreme Court, I will never publicly criticize you for any decision you ever make. And I mean no decision.' He repeated that several times. And then he said, 'At 2 p.m. I will appoint you to the Supreme Court of the United States. Let's go have lunch.' "
And so history was made. That afternoon of July 1, eight years ago, Bush announced to the nation that he was selecting "the best person at the right time."
Full Court Press runs the first Monday of the month. Joan Biskupic's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org