Ask Clarence Thomas what he enjoys doing and he’ll tell you about driving his RV across America or cheering for his beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers. That hardly sounds like the life of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, but in the case of Thomas, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
With his new memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” topping the New York Times best-seller list, Thomas has had the opportunity to connect with “real” Americans -- ordinary citizens who, he says, embody the true spirit of our great nation. His book tour has taken him from the East Coast to the Midwest and will reach Southern California next month.
Along the way, I’ve been fortunate to hear him speak twice -- once at a private dinner for bloggers and again last week at an event sponsored by The Heritage Foundation. I left both events feeling inspired and energized by Thomas’ positive attitude, sound advice and commitment to principles.
I wish every American had the opportunity to engage with Thomas in the same way. Hearing him speak about his remarkable life not only dispels the misperceptions painted by the media, but it also yields valuable insights about humanity and the state of our nation
My encounters with Thomas have produced some important lessons. The one that stood out last week came from his answer to a question about the level of political discourse in Washington -- something that has frustrated me since I arrived here six years ago. If anyone is qualified to answer this question, it’s Thomas, who called his confirmation hearing in 1991 a “high-tech lynching.”
Thomas chose to tell us about the importance of manners in society, particularly when raising children. For whatever reason, Washington politicians appear to lack those manners -- contributing to the coarse nature of politics.
“People in this town think it’s really cute to make little, nasty comments about people,” Thomas told the crowd last week. “That really makes you a big person because you just came up with some cute slur. That’s what gets over in this town for being genius.”
He said it would be unthinkable for such conduct to be tolerated in other professions. Take a hospital operating room, for example. “You would figure out a way to limp out of there, crawl or feel your way out. Now, if we would not allow that in the operating room, why do we think that’s a good way to choose who will have control of our nuclear arsenal?”
Asked about his personal tribulations, Thomas shrugged and explained the contrast between his life and that of his grandfather. “How can I complain to him -- no education, no father, raised in part by a freed slave in the Jim Crow South? He never complained. My grandmother never complained. How can I tell him that as a member of the United States Supreme Court I can complain? I have every reason to be happy, none to be sad.”
During his 16-year tenure on the Supreme Court, Thomas has continued to endure criticism. Yet it doesn’t bother him. “I’m more of an idealist today than I’ve ever been because this document [the Constitution] is critical to the way we live our lives,” he said in response to one question. He later added, “In this business, right is still right, even if you stand by yourself.”
It’s that attitude that helped Thomas through the hard times he’s faced since coming to Washington in the early 1980s. He said his experiences have taught him about what’s really important in life. Reflecting on a visit with seriously injured Iraq War veterans, Thomas said he felt small when they kept apologizing for taking up his time, even though they were the ones who deserved the attention.
“As you look at the grave sites, whether they are in Arlington or some foreign shore, or you look at the Vietnam Memorial, so many people made it possible for us,” he said. “Each year I take my law clerks at the end of the term to Gettysburg so they can understand why those people died to give us the Constitution and kind of country we have.”
Make no mistake, Thomas’ life has had its ups and downs, but he puts it in perspective in “My Grandfather’s Son.” As he wrapped up his remarks last Monday, he said he hopes his memoir offers inspiration to people who read it.
“If you look at the first line in my book, I was 9 years old when I met my father. Boy, things aren’t looking real good here,” he explained. “The house burns down -- they’re really not looking up. So [we] move to this terrible slum. Now things are looking really bad. But the story doesn’t end where it’s really bad. It’s just beginning.
“The point of the book is that just because it looks bad today doesn’t mean it will be bad tomorrow. In fact, it might be great.”There are few examples better than Clarence Thomas of someone who, through perseverance and hard work, did in fact turn out great.