A Conversation With Clarence

Posted: Oct 02, 2007 11:09 AM
A Conversation With Clarence

It’s the opening day of the Supreme Court term and Justice Clarence Thomas has snuck away from the Supreme Court press corps, citing the old adage about teaching a pig to sing. “You’ll just irritate the pig and waste your time,” he says with a smile.

Instead, he’s meeting with a group of conservative commentators about his memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son.” It’s been 16 years since Thomas first took his seat at the bench after the nasty fight and nastier allegations that clouded his confirmation. In recounting a story, he stumbles on the vote tally. “How many votes did I get? 51?”

The rest of the room, almost all of which except me were integral in the 1991 fight for the Justice piped up simultaneously, “52-48!”

It becomes very clear in listening to Thomas, and in reading his new book, what is really important to the Justice, and it is most certainly not the Anita Hill controversy that has unfortunately come to define him for some Americans.

It is also not the fawning affection of media and D.C. elites:

“Hey, I’d have to become a Middle Eastern dictator with nuclear weapons to be invited to Columbia. I’m just not interested in that.”

When asked if it was painful to write his raw and moving memoir, to relive the tragedy of the Anita Hill controversy, he quickly puts it in perspective.

“That wasn’t a real tragedy; that was being set upon by bad people,” he said. The real tragedies were losing his grandmother and grandfather, who raised him, and then his younger brother eight years ago. The deaths of all the members of his childhood home prompted him to make sure their story was told and, along with it, his own story.

“I didn’t want to leave the telling to those with careless hands and malicious hearts,” he said.

The result is a book that is as frank and self-assured as the Justice himself, as clear as his baritone voice, and that pulses with the grit and glory of the race-scarred, Christ-haunted South he calls home. It’s a story of bigotry beaten, of racism, then radicalism and then redemption.

Thomas still calls the interest groups who set upon him during his 1991 confirmation hearing “clowns,” but chuckles at the media’s assertion in early reviews of his book that he is still so “angry” about Anita Hill.

“They don’t know me. How do they know I’m angry?”

He knows well the media’s and his political enemies’ tendency to create a picture of him that is not always accurate and sometimes recklessly unfair. He noted that in all of his travels, all of his speeches, he’s never had a negative incident. There have been protests—“The black law professors at the University of North Carolina law school walked out, but whoop-dee-do. If you’re so smart, why don’t you stay to talk?”—but even those protests have been trumped up to a great extent by media.

Thomas talked of a commencement speech he gave at the University of Georgia’s law school while I was an undergrad there. His appearance and the protests by law school faculty were reported on extensively before the event, but Thomas laughs heartily when he remembers he was greeted by about three protesters.

“It’s always the faculty. You can count on it. It’s never the students,” he said.   

A more common response at his speeches is that of an older black man he met at an Atlanta speech who came up to him afterwards, visibly moved.

“I came here prepared not to like you, but they’ve been lying about you,” the man said.

But he can’t meet every student, can’t correct every misperception in person, so he wrote his story down.

Here are some thoughts from the question-and-answer session we had with the Justice. He is funny, spins a great tale, and has a laugh that would make Zeus jealous (seriously, the audiobook will be great). It was a privilege to spend some time with him.

On his turn from black radical to black conservative, what happened?

“I grew up. As my grandfather used to say, ‘you just live long enough.’ I lived long enough.”

He told the story of a night of rioting at Harvard Square during his college days, fueled by “liquid courage.” After it was all over, Thomas was walking home, thinking, “what did I just do?.” He stopped in front of a church and had a moment of prayer. It was a turning point for him, he said.

On judicial philosophies:

“I’m not high on theories…[When a case deals with a document], I stay as close to that document as I can. I try to tack as close to that as I can...but I don’t go in with a pre-fab philosophy.”

On life at the Court:

“This is not something I expected or sought. It’s actually something I resisted, but at some point, you stop worrying and accept your calling.”

“It doesn’t bother me that I will spend the rest of my life on the Court…I suspect that I’ll stay as long as I can do the job.”

“Compared to the rest of this city, it’s a delightful place to work,” he said, remarking that the Justices eat lunch together instead of stewing in their ideological corners. It’s a change in the atmosphere from past Courts, brought on in great part, by Sandra Day O’Connor’s efforts. “The names that people call each other in this city…I’ve never heard that on the Court.”

On what he would have done if he hadn’t been a Supreme Court Justice:

“I’d probably have been a small-to-medium business owner in a rural Southern area. I’d like to coach football or baseball and just be part of my community.”

“I’d like to drive 18-wheelers. I kind of like the equipment,” he said, at which point he shared a couple stories about driving around the country in his RV bus, stopping at truck stops in order to live a little part of the dream.

He said there’s an art to visiting a truck stop, filling up, acting like you know what you’re doing.

“You've got to be professional...You don’t go in a truck stop if you don’t know what kind of engine you have,” he said.

He said he’s not often recognized on the road, but he did have a man come by his bus and say, “Anybody ever tell you you look a lot like Clarence Thomas? I bet it happens all the time.”

On the brutal confirmation process, both for him and newer justices:

“Justice White was appointed, went through hearings, and confirmed within 10 days. What you have to ask is, ‘what has improved at the Court as a result of the difficult hearings?’”

“The people in charge of the processes need to make sure they’re not hijacked by the special-interest groups instead of giving into it and giving legitimacy to it.”

On the kind of people presidents should seek to appoint:

“I do think you can find people who have been in the heat of battle. [If they haven’t], you have no idea what they’re gonna do when the first shot is fired. As the wise philosopher Mike Tyson said, ‘Everybody’s got plans until they get hit the first time.’”

On communicating with the younger generation:

He said he meets with a lot of young people. He mentioned the University of Georgia football team, specifically. There’s initially a barrier, but they warm up pretty fast, he said.

“Kids aren’t buffaloed by it [the prevalent media story about Clarence Thomas], and as soon as you burst that bubble, they start to question everything else they’ve heard.”

I asked him specifically about the idea, sometimes found in the black community, that to be authentically black is to be aggrieved. To be successful without buying into the victim philosophy is being a sell-out:

“They’re selling kids this poison. It doesn’t help them to tell them not to do well.”

It is the opposite of the lessons his grandfather taught him, among them:

“If we died, he'd take our bodies to school for three days to make sure we weren't faking."

Clarence Thomas’ life is a remarkable one, framed by the bigotry of the backwards and the urbane, and marked by his ability to overcome both without bitterness, thanks to the lessons of the remarkable man who raised him. It’s an American story, through and through, and those Americans who’ve never given Thomas a chance would do well to read it.