WASHINGTON—To the historian Richard Hofstadter, American politics “has often been an arena for angry minds.” No other word but paranoia, he famously concluded, evokes the sense of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
No contemporary public figure but Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas fits the description so neatly.
If Thomas’ new autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son,” was meant to humanize the justice, it has succeeded. Thomas reveals himself to be a Shakespearean archetype, consumed by rage.
His book raises a more disturbing question than those that played out during the he said/she said circus of the Anita Hill sexual harassment imbroglio. Should a man so blinded by animosity, so driven by his own demons, sit in judgment of others on the highest court in this land?
As Thomas and his supporters would have it, the justice is entitled to his anger at having been falsely smeared by Hill when she came forward to describe what she said was a series of sexually charged conversations and advances when the two worked together during the Reagan administration. Evidence amassed since the 1991 hearings tends to support Hill. To reargue the particulars lacks purpose, since Thomas has lifetime tenure on the high court, and, at age 59, is destined to shape the lives of millions of Americans for decades.
Which is why Thomas’ account of himself before the nation ever heard of Hill is most frightening. He writes, for example, of his struggle with a women’s advocacy group that pressed Thomas on cases involving equal pay when he chaired the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Though he disdained the group’s political tactics, Thomas writes that he went to one of its meetings in Chicago as a “gesture of goodwill” in 1983.
Here is his account: “About a hundred mostly white women showed up. They gave every impression of being successful and judging by the questions they asked me, they were smart and sophisticated as well. Yet I couldn’t understand how angry they seemed to be about their lot in life. How could these well-off white women be more bitter than the poor blacks and Hispanics with whom I met regularly at EEOC?”
Could it be unequal pay? Blocked promotions? A glass ceiling that bruised and humiliated them each time they bumped against it? Thomas doesn’t say. He just seethes.
For him, no grievance is as legitimate as his own. He sees his Yale Law School degree not as an iconic achievement for a black kid from the impoverished rural South, but as the “soft underbelly of my career” because he’d been admitted to Yale through affirmative action. He complained in his “60 Minutes” interview with CBS reporter Steve Kroft that the Yale degree was “discounted ... before my eyes” when he “couldn’t get a job” after graduation, despite having graduated in the middle of his class. “That degree meant one thing for whites and another thing for blacks,” Thomas claims.
Perhaps Thomas might have compared notes with former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who served alongside him for 15 years. When she graduated from Stanford Law School third in her class—finishing in just two years instead of the customary three—no California law firm would offer her a lawyer’s position and instead she was asked to work as a legal secretary.
Thomas’ narcissism is surpassed only by his enmity toward the groups that opposed his nomination long before Hill came forward.
The NAACP, which had been at odds with Thomas since his years at the EEOC, gave other liberal groups a tacit go-ahead “to smear a black man,” he writes. The AFL-CIO, which coordinated its opposition with the NAACP, is portrayed as a wily political behemoth that was able to get the nation’s largest and most revered civil rights group to do the union bosses’ bidding. As for the women’s groups that opposed Thomas, they were leaders of a liberal lynch mob whose purpose was to “keep the black man in his place.”
The self-serving autobiography is a stale Washington genre, mostly useful for generating a headline or two. Yet this one reveals a deep bitterness and a blindness that obliterates empathy and even reason.
How can Thomas consider fairly the case of any group or individual he sees with such reflexive contempt? If his fitness to serve on the Supreme Court wasn’t compromised by the long-ago Hill controversy, it is undermined now by the justice’s own account of himself.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group