Over the Christmas vacation I read Clarence Thomas’s memoir “My Grandfather’s Son.” I recommend it highly. The people who most need to read it are the very people who never will: the leftists who have bought off on the idea that Thomas is a conservative bogeyman who is evil and never should have become a Supreme Court Justice.
I began reading Justice Thomas’s book as I waited in line to meet him at Chapman University, and my overwhelming impression of the first 20-30 pages was: “Man. This guy was poor.”
Some of the stories in the book were already familiar to me from the reviews I had read, such as the inspiring story of his training for (and running) a marathon:
A young black Marine was handing out water to the exhausted runners. “God, this is hard,” I told him. “That’s what you asked for,” he replied without a trace of sympathy. I shook off my self-pity, picked up my pace, and crossed the finish line three hours and eleven minutes after I’d started.
But many stories were new to me. For example, at Yale Law School, Thomas lost his wallet one day, and learned that it had been turned in by John Bolton. That was the beginning of a friendship with Bolton. Thomas also relates that Lani Guinier helped him get a job with a black civil-rights law firm.
Yup, Thomas wanted to work for a black civil-rights law firm. He was something of a leftist in his younger days.
That leads me to another story I hadn’t heard until I read the book: Thomas applied to and was accepted at Harvard Law School. But after visiting the school, he decided to decline the invitation to attend, even before he had received his answer from Yale. You see, after visiting Harvard, he decided it was too conservative.
Thomas also voted for McGovern — although he did so with misgivings, believing that McGovern was too conservative a candidate.
Thomas’s intellectual movement from angry black radical to conservative Republican is an important part of the book. He describes reading the words of Thomas Sowell for the first time: “I felt like a thirsty man gulping down a glass of cool water.”
One thing that people might not know about Thomas is how tight money was for him. While at Yale, he had no idea how he was going to repay his student loans, so he signed up for a “tuition postponement option” — which he clearly needed, as he was living in roach- and rat-infested surroundings even during his tenure at EEOC. This led to one of the more amazing tidbits of the book. The emphasis is mine:
I didn’t know what else to do, so I signed on the dotted line, and spent the next two decades paying off the money I’d borrowed during my last two years at Yale. I was still making payments when I joined the Supreme Court.
Thomas has some choice words for the media. He describes how an Atlanta reporter investigated his home life during his nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The reporter got a personal tour of Pinpoint from Thomas’s mother.
The reporter later told me that his doubts were laid to rest that day, but his editor refused to let him say anything favorable about me in the piece that finally ran.
The slanders against Thomas during his confirmation hearings are too numerous to list, but here is one good example. While working for the Attorney General’s Office in Missouri, Thomas wanted to make a point to a colleague about race. So, returning from one of his trips to Savannah, Thomas had brought back “a miniature Georgia flag — the same one that had been adopted in 1956, with the Confederate flag and the Georgia state seal displayed side by side — and asked him to try to imagine how he would have felt growing up under a flag like that had he been black.” When Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court, this turned into a story that he had kept a Confederate flag on his desk.
The media, of course, jumped all over the story, tracking down so-called experts who’d never met me and inviting them to sound off about the psychological implications of this nonevent.
The cynicism of Washington politics that Thomas describes isn’t particularly surprising, but readers may be taken aback by the cheerful openness with which some politicians admitted to him the naked political calculations that governed their decisionmaking. In interviews during the Supreme Court nomination process, Thomas says:
Bob Packwood, on the other hand, was direct: he said that he liked me, agreed with many things that I had said, and thought that I would be a fine member of the Court, but that he couldn’t vote for me because his political career depended on support from the same women’s groups that were opposing my nomination. Al Gore was equally candid when a friend of mine approached him, saying that he’d vote for me if he decided not to run for president.
You might think Thomas would be appalled by such crass political considerations, but he says he appreciated those politicians who gave such honest answers “instead of making up some transparent excuse.”
One man who didn’t pass the honesty test was lyin’ Joe Biden, who promised Thomas that he would open the hearings with some softball questions to set Thomas at ease — and then asked a blatantly dishonest question right out of the gate. (Biden ripped a Thomas quote out of context to suggest that he supported judicial activism, when the full quote in context showed Thomas making the exact opposite point.)
Thomas’s treatment at the hands of the Democrats turned his mom off of Democrats for life:
Never before had I seen her as angry as she was in the fall of 1991. All her life she’d assumed that Democrats in Washington were sensible leaders — but now she saw these men as single-issue zealots who were unwilling to treat her son fairly. “I ain’t never votin’ fo’ another Democrat long as I can draw breath,” she told me as we walked out of the Senate building on what should have been my final day of testimony. “I’d vote for a dog first.”
I gained new respect for a couple of people besides Thomas reading this book. Larry Thompson, whose name was batted around as a possible replacement for Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General, was one of those people. Thomas relates that Thompson attended the University of Michigan Law School, but left his race off the application. Thompson proved to be a reliable friend when Thomas needed help during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Thompson was working at a law firm in Atlanta when Thomas called him for help:
“Larry, I need your help,” I said.
“I’ll be there on Monday.”
“It’ll all be over by then.”
“Then I’ll be there in the morning.” And that was that.
Now that’s a stand-up guy.
I also gained a new respect for Juan Williams, whom I had always thought of as the rather soft-headed liberal on Fox News, who regularly gets beaten up by Brit Hume for being so utterly clueless.
But it turns out that, whatever his faults, Juan Williams is an honest guy who writes accurate columns with truthful quotations. The first big splash Thomas made in Washington was when Williams reported some off-the-cuff remarks Thomas had made to Williams about race. Thomas (rather naively) hadn’t realized his statements to Williams would be printed in the paper — but when they were, he says, he saw that Williams “presented my opinions accurately and fairly.” (They still created something of a firestorm. It was not popular for blacks to publicly say what Thomas had said.)
There is some anger in the book reserved for the bigots who attacked Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. This anger makes for some of the better quotes in the book, so I’ll give you a taste of a couple of them.
The mob I now faced carried no ropes or guns. Its weapons were smooth-tongued lies spoken into microphones and printed on the front pages of America’s newspapers. It no longer sought to break the bodies of its victims. Instead it devastated their reputations and drained away their hope. But it was a mob all the same. And its purpose — to keep the black man in his place — was unchanged.
As a child in the Deep South, I’d grown up fearing the lynch mobs of the Ku Klux Klan; as an adult, I was starting to wonder if I’d been afraid of the wrong white people all along. My worst fears had come to pass not in Georgia but in Washington, D.C., where I was being pursued not by bigots in white robes but by left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony.
In case you’re thinking that Thomas is the only one who feels this way, let me quote Juan Williams, to show you why I have such new respect for him:
To listen to or read some news reports on Thomas over the past month is to discover a monster of a man, totally unlike the human being full of sincerity, confusion, and struggles whom I saw as a reporter who watched him for some 10 years. He has been conveniently transformed into a monster about whom it is fair to say anything, to whom it is fair to do anything. President Bush may be packing the court with conservatives [a joke of an argument given what we know about Souter — Patterico], but that is another argument, larger than Clarence Thomas. In pursuit of abuses by a conservative president the liberals have become the abusive monsters.
Nicely said, Juan — and as true today as it was in the early 1990s.
Luckily, the public mostly saw through the Democrats’ smoke and mirrors. Thomas tells the moving story of finishing his Anita Hill testimony and going to a very public dinner at Morton’s of Chicago in D.C., joined by Robert Bork and his wife, Ted Olson and his wife, and Orrin Hatch. Thomas says that “though I briefly felt exposed and uncomfortable,” he had an enjoyable dinner, capped by this:
When we rose to leave at the end of the evening, the entire restaurant erupted in a spontaneous standing ovation. We also found out later that several patrons had offered to pick up our very substantial tab, but Senator Hatch had insisted on paying.
I’m sorry I wasn’t there for that. But I recently got to participate in another standing ovation for Justice Thomas, at Chapman University. And that was pretty good.
I hope readers of this site will buy this book (or borrow it from the library) and read it. If you do, please let me know.