Justice Thomas and Element R

John Andrews
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Posted: Nov 05, 2007 2:43 PM
Justice Thomas and Element R

“Born on third base and thought he hit a triple,” Ann Richards’ supposed death cut on George H. W. Bush, was a failure and a falsehood both. The Bushes laughed last when the father won the presidency in 1988 and the son unseated Texas Gov. Richards in 1994. And each man’s political success was arguably in spite of, not because of, his genes.

The Colorado Rockies’ amazing pennant run, glorious despite their being swept by Boston in the World Series, got me thinking about where self-respect and success come from. Smugness and unearned privilege do corrode achievement. But victimhood, self-pity, and entitlement are equally corrosive.

“Born with two strikes against him and thought he was owed the ballgame” sums up this mentality. Justice Clarence Thomas, named to the Supreme Court in 1991 by the first President Bush, tells of seeing through it as an angry college student. Not even the ugliness of racism, he realized, changed the fact that “blacks could never hope to improve their lives until they took responsibility for them.”

Thomas’s memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” is the book of the year for Americans tired of politics as usual. Element R, the responsibility movement launched in this column on July 15, aimed at transcending rigid ideologies with a simple “send me” ethic, has a new hero in Myers Anderson, the dirt-poor small businessman who raised young Clarence and his brother in segregated Savannah.

Daddy, as the boys called him, “wouldn’t listen to any excuses for failure,” Thomas writes. “’Old Man Can’t is dead – I helped bury him,’ he said.” When the disillusioned seminarian was radicalized by the King assassination, rage turned him from Myers’ self-reliant model. But in praying remorsefully after a riot at Harvard, he decided “Daddy had been right all along: the only hope I had of changing the world was to change myself first.”

The Clarence Thomas of those days was still a man of the left who voted for George McGovern though thinking him “a bit too conservative.” Yet in dorm debates with fellow law student John Bolton (who would later serve the current President Bush as UN ambassador), the scholarly grandson grasped what his uneducated grandfather always knew:

“I saw [that] real freedom meant independence from government intrusion, which in turn meant that you had to take responsibility for your own decisions. When the government assumes that responsibility, it takes away your freedom – and wasn’t freedom the very thing for which blacks in America were fighting?”

If Element R ran candidates, our Clarence Thomas for President bandwagon would be rolling like the Red Sox. As Taft once went from White House to court, Thomas might now go the other direction. We’d put Bill Cosby on the ticket with him, honoring the funnyman’s serious book, “Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors,” and dooming the comical Stephen Colbert candidacy.

The nonpartisan responsibility movement isn’t about electing people, though. Rather our goal, as I wrote in this summer’s prospectus, is to create bottom-up pressure on everyone in public life – politicians, interest groups, news and entertainment media, educators, clergy – to stop blaming, stop excusing, start owning up and stepping up, Daddy-style.

“Me, look no further.” From Eve in the garden to George Washington in the orchard to Ike in his letter if D-Day should fail, that unflinching acceptance of responsibility expresses the best of human character. Its rarity today attests how much our country needs Element R.

Be who you are, use what you have, do what you can, an old primer teaches. In this spirit America was birthed, her wrongs righted -- in part; the work continues – and her greatest victories won. Myers Anderson, illiterate though he was, would say amen to the primer. So would Clint Hurdle and his Rockies.