The interview encompassed seven hours. Video segments will be available on Nightline beginning tomorrow night.
The online summary is in eight parts. It’s quite long and undoubtedly quite interesting. I will have an update with more thoughts in about an hour.
UPDATE: In seven hours of interviews, Thomas
painfully recounts periods of alcohol use and acute financial problems as a young professional and even a fleeting thought of suicide.
Thomas explains why he is so honest in the book: he would like it to serve as an inspiration for young people who are in the situation he is in.
“There was a point in my life when I could have used a book like that — when I was a kid. I mean, who would provide the leadership for me to come out of Georgia? . . . .
“I would have wanted somebody to be honest with me, someone to come back and say, ‘I was there with you, just like you — I was there just like you are,’ not that ‘I’m greater than you are,’ not that, ‘I’m stooping down to touch you or condescending to you,'” Thomas says. “‘I was there, and I can’t solve all your problems, but here is a way that might work. I don’t have all the answers, but here is something that I humbly submit might work.'”
“And that’s not just for blacks. That’s not just for kids. That’s for everybody who’s still trying to be hopeful with their problems,” Thomas says. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say, ‘I had no problems, but I could help you.’ You’ve got to say, ‘I had those problems, and I want to help you and be a part of your solution.’”
I’m forwarding the link to local talk radio host Larry Elder, a black man who advocates hard work and making your own way. If he’s not talking about this interview tomorrow, there’s something wrong.
If self-reliance is a huge theme of the interview, so is race.
One may agree or disagree with Thomas, but any rational person reading this piece must necessarily conclude that — contrary to the nasty comments Thomas’s critics make about him — Thomas cares deeply about the plight of black people. He just has different ideas about how to help them.
And he has, of course, experienced racism, and it’s not something he has forgotten. He talks about how black people had to plan out their trips under Jim Crow, because, for example, you couldn’t just stop anywhere for gas or food. Another set of examples:
Thomas encountered overt racism in high school, which he has talked about over the years and which has been described in other books about him. When he won the Latin Bee, for example, some of his classmates broke off the head of the prize, the Statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. Thomas glued the head back on, and someone broke it off again. He stubbornly glued it back. He would keep that statute for decades, as a reminder.
Another time a student passed him a note in class that read, “I like Martin Luther King.” Thomas opened it up and saw one word: “Dead.”
The way Thomas responded should be an inspiration to blacks today. He didn’t join a group of thugs, beat the offender unconscious, and await the help of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Instead, he chose to get revenge by rising above his racist schoolmates:
“You have a number of choices. You could continue to always fight against people who are really distractions. They’re people in the cheap seats of life. Or you can do what you went there to do. I mean, did I go to the seminary to constantly get distracted by jerks, or did I go to the seminary to achieve certain goals?
. . . .
“That was the hard part. How do you become a better person when you’re dealing with people who are not good people? . . . The first reaction (is) you want to punch him. You want to hit him. You want to strike out. That’s your first reaction. But then, after you’ve done that, what do you do? I mean how does that advance your vocation? Have you become a better person?
“And the way you ultimately win all of that is to become better than they are,” Thomas says.
This attitude reminds me of the rebuke that Aaron, the Albert Brooks character in “Broadcast News,” gave to his classmates who had tormented him: “You’ll never make more than nineteen thousand dollars a year!”
Thomas discusses his grandfather, whom he considered a father, and who clearly shaped his life. Thomas came back home from seminary, tired of being around white people and having to prove himself. His grandfather told him that if he was giving up on life, he was going to have to move out.
The issues of self-reliance and race come together in Thomas’s views regarding affirmative action — a policy that has clearly shaped his life . . . he says, for the worse.
Justice Thomas firmly believes that affirmative action has hurt blacks generally. First, he says, it puts some blacks in places where they are doomed to fail — a documented fact, by the way, in the university context.
Naturally, many have concluded that about Thomas himself — that if he hadn’t been replacing the black Thurgood Marshall, he never would have been nominated. Such people are unlikely to have their minds changed by the revelation that Bush I had initially considered Thomas as a replacement for Brennan — worrying that if he waited until Marshall’s retirement, Thomas would be perceived as a quota pick. (Bush’s aides talked him out of this plan, and fobbed off David Souter on him instead. Ugh.)
But it is clear that another aspect of affirmative action rankles worse — and is intensely personal for Thomas. He clearly believes, in his bones, that affirmative action causes bigoted leftist whites to belittle conservative blacks by lazily asserting that they are affirmative action beneficiaries:
And the discussion of affirmative action, he says, is particularly damaging. It’s become an issue that pits blacks against whites, liberals against conservatives—to the point that it’s almost impossible to honestly debate its impact, Thomas said.
Thomas spoke at length about how his own experiences as a black conservative—and a black justice—prove his point. Because he’d benefited from affirmative action at Yale Law School, he said people have questioned his qualifications and discounted his achievements. Even as a Justice, he says, people continue to believe he merely has “followed” Justice Scalia because a black man couldn’t possibly hold those views or be smart enough to come up with them on his own.
“Give me a break. I mean this is part of the — you know, the black guy is supposed to follow somebody white. We know that,” Thomas says. “Come on, we know the story behind that. I mean there’s no need to sort of tip-toe around that … The story line was that, well I couldn’t be doing this myself, he must be doing it for me because I’m black. That’s obvious.
“Again, I go back to my point. Who were the real bigots? It’s obvious,” Thomas says.
There is plenty of evidence to support Thomas on this point. This is always the first line of attack by leftists against him: that he benefited from affirmative action, therefore he isn’t allowed to oppose it without being mocked for it.
Greenburg cites a particularly telling example from a white liberal and former Carter aide, who said in 1976: “Mr. Thomas is surely familiar with those chicken-eating preachers who gladly parroted the segregationist’s line in exchange for a few crumbs from the white man’s table. He’s one of the few left in captivity.”
There is no denying the ugly racism of that comment — and one sees it even today in the repeated epithets of “Uncle Tom!” that are constantly thrown at Thomas. I’ve seen this in comments on this very blog — and indeed, the attitude is utterly pervasive among Thomas’s leftist critics, whom he regards as bigots little different from the rednecks who called his race stupid and smelly when he was growing up in rural Georgia.
Actually, Thomas considers the modern-day liberal bigots to be worse — because, he says, redneck bigotry is often born of ignorance, which can be cured. For example, when his future wife Virginia, who is white, introduced him to her family, her uncle was initially hostile. But Thomas talked to the uncle and won him over.
“On the issue of prejudice, a lot of that come out of ignorance. Once we got a chance to talk…it was gone immediately,” he says of his conversation with Virginia’s uncle. “He was just acting out of what he knew, and what he knew, when proven wrong, he totally changed.”
“Again, I contrast that with the intentional bigotry of those who are elite,” Thomas says. “It’s well thought out, it’s planned, it’s malicious.”
Along those lines, Thomas is resentful that professors at Yale opposed his nomination — and again, sees a barely veiled racism behind it:
“When I was at Yale, I got along fine. I had friends. The professors were great. I took a lot of very demanding courses — and, again, it was the seminary all over again. Here’s this challenge,” he says. “But (then) all my achievements were collapsed, or actually discounted. . . . “The assumption was that you only have that because you’re black, and it’s not as good as the white kids,” Thomas says. “And that would be, again, one of the things that would happen when I was nominated to the Court — that I couldn’t possibly be as good as the white Yale graduates, because I obviously went to Yale because of the color of my skin. So everything was discounted.
“And I always find it fascinating that people who claim, well, you did this because you went to Yale, all these good things happened because you went to Yale,” Thomas says. “I couldn’t get a job out of Yale Law School.”
Thomas came to believe whites assumed he wasn’t as smart as his white Yale classmates, and when he couldn’t get a job when he was graduating, he saw that as proof: Because he was black, he says, people believed his degree was not as good as a white student’s degree. He saw no “benefit” from affirmative action.
“I was humiliated,” he wrote, “and desperate.” He peeled a 15-cent sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of his degree “to remind myself of the mistake I’d made by going to Yale.”
It’s both funny and poignant.
Here’s something that may shock you: at least back in the day, Thomas considered himself a libertarian, not a conservative. For example, when he went to work for John Danforth,
Danforth’s position was that the federal government had no business telling the states what to do on abortion. Thomas responded: “The state had no business telling women what to do with their bodies.”
By the way, there is absolutely nothing inconsistent between that position and a belief that Roe v. Wade should be overruled. If you don’t understand that, you really have no business talking about the subject.
The piece is full of other fascinating tidbits. Did you know that Thomas ran a marathon? (In 3 hours and 11 minutes, no less.)
What I have given you only scratches the surface of Greenburg’s extensive and fascinating post. The interviews will be broadcast on “Nightline” beginning tomorrow night. The TiVo is set, and I just can’t wait.
I want to close the post with this line, which especially amused me, and endeared Justice Thomas to me more than ever:
[O]ne of the vows I made when I got here was that I would never do this job as poorly as journalists do theirs.
Heh. As low as that standard admittedly is, Justice Thomas, you’ve risen far above it.