Clarence Thomas' very American story

Posted: Oct 22, 2007 12:00 AM
Clarence Thomas' very American story

Futurist John Naisbitt, in his most recent book, talks about trends and leadership.

He notes the price that genuine leaders often pay, evoking envy and resentment, because they refuse to be defined by "prevailing values, rules, and expectations" in their pursuit of higher goals.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a case study of the phenomenon. He is a far too humble man to describe himself in these terms. But this is the case.

Sixteen years after being sworn in to the nation's highest court, Thomas shares his story in a new autobiography, "My Grandfather's Son." It is a highly readable and quintessentially American story of persistence, idealism, suffering, faith, and success.

Regarding the dangers and pitfalls of being too far ahead of the rest, Naisbitt quotes former New York governor and failed presidential candidate Al Smith: "Don't get so far ahead of the parade that people don't know you're in it."

This has been the challenge for black conservatives. It is a lonely business to get blacks to appreciate that the values and principles of individual liberty, which have made this country so great, are as relevant and applicable to them as to everyone else.

Moreover, and perhaps tragically ironic, it is a lonely business to convince blacks that they are equally capable of living by and benefiting from these great principles. That indeed, for every black American to realize his or her potential, they must.

Clarence Thomas believes these things, and as result he has paid a price. All black conservatives have been out ahead of the parade. But Thomas is a particularly high profile one, with an important job. So he has paid a particularly high price.

The personal story that Thomas tells in his book shows that he is everything that his enemies would have us believe he is not.

First and foremost, it is clear that the plight of blacks in America has been his central, driving lifetime concern. Liberals, black and white, don't like his answers. So they would like us to believe that because his answers are not theirs, it means he really doesn't care. The book shows the opposite.

Second, liberals would have us believe that he is a crude opportunist. In fact, his life has been defined by a persistent idealism. This is not a story like that of Bill Clinton, who decided he wanted to be president of the United States when he was still having cookies and milk at his mother's kitchen table.

Thomas' journey, from poverty in rural Georgia to the United States Supreme Court, proceeded in unplanned chapters, each one emerging from the one before as a result of his assessment of what the right thing was to do at that moment. This was no career planning exercise, but rather a hard fought crystallization of an inner sense of mission and ideals.

Third, for whatever reason, it is beyond the ken of any liberal to accept that a black individual can arrive at conservative principles as a result of his or her own struggles and deliberative processes. This is so unfathomable to liberals, black and white, that they are convinced that behind every black conservative is a white Republican who has made it worth his or her while. This is, of course, obscene.

Thomas' conservatism began to formally crystallize, from his own thoughts and experiences, when he was an undergraduate at Holy Cross. This was long before he had anything to do with the Republican Party.

In fact, his real grounding in the values of self reliance, hard work, and faith started with his grandfather, Daddy, who raised him, and for whom he names the book.

Daddy started his own fuel oil business when he decided that a man shouldn't work for someone else. He raised his grandson with an iron hand, and taught him that "Any job worth doing is worth doing right."

Needless to say, the book gives an account of Thomas' confirmation hearings and the tawdry and sickening Anita Hill affair. That an unsubstantiated accusation, submitted in confidence to a Senate committee, and then leaked to the press, can be transformed into a carnival-like public hearing that can threaten and defame a Supreme Court nominee, should concern every citizen about the state of our government.

Struggles and suffering are not without purpose. The parade is starting to catch up to Clarence Thomas and black conservatism is taking root. Ironically, simultaneous with the appearance of Thomas' book is Bill Cosby's new book, in which Cosby argues it is important for blacks to replace dependence and victimization with personal responsibility.

"My Grandfather's Son" is an important story by an important American. It should be read.