WASHINGTON — A friend heard Justice Clarence Thomas speak not long ago and described his address as tinged with bitterness, the same tone he set in his newly published memoirs that focus on his early life and his confirmation ordeal at the hands of a shameless Senate.
"I really think he should have put that behind him by now," my friend said. "He is billed as a man of good humor and temperament, but there is a clear undercurrent of anger there."
Whether it is therapeutic for him to bare his soul so that he can feel better, I'm not certain it is all that healthy for his work and relationships on the Supreme Court. In fact, it raises a serious question about whether lasting inner rage of any kind is a desired ingredient for judicial temperament. Furthermore, it opens the door for his detractors to revisit the Anita Hill issue.
That's not to say that the terribly unfair accusations based on unprovable allegations at the time of his confirmation aren't enough to have tested the forgiveness of a saint. Having someone you have helped much of her adult life tell the world a story so blatantly constructed of whole cloth — and laughably insignificant even if it hadn't been — is the kind of nightmare no one wants to suffer. Ironically, Hill continues to owe her livelihood as a law professor to Thomas. She has capitalized on the notoriety earned through sexual-harassment charges that even those who originally interviewed her warned the Senate Judiciary Committee didn't ring true.
Hill, never the one to miss an opportunity, meanwhile has written an Op-Ed piece and been interviewed on television saying she stands by her allegations, and adding that she won't allow Thomas to reinvent her — as if anyone would want to.
Thomas is correct that 16 years ago he was the victim of an attack by liberals who couldn't challenge him on competence and win so they set out to destroy his character by painting him as a sexual predator. He is correct when he says that the press — some of it, at least — gave him no quarter and that the Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee indulged in what was among the more disgusting displays of hypocrisy in recent history. Among those passing judgment, for instance, was Sen. Edward Kennedy of Chappaquiddick fame. He is correct when he says it was a lynching cloaked in sanctimony led by Chairman Joseph Biden of Delaware, whose judgment ranked alongside that of Pontius Pilate's.
Granting all that, it is, however, difficult to understand why Thomas would want to regurgitate that disgusting experience at this time. It is not likely to garner him much sympathy or change many minds, and there could be some fallout. There is liable to be some serious unhappiness on the part of his colleagues on the bench, although because of the court's cloistered nature that probably won't be public. There seems to be little precedent for a memoir of this nature by a sitting justice,
particularly one who has so much time left before even considering retirement.
Thomas bares his animosity toward a father who abandoned him and a grandfather he obviously adored but who punished him for leaving the seminary. But he also reveals publicly for the first time a deep sense of inferiority rising from his belief that his admission to Yale was tainted by racial preference. This explains clearly his opposition to affirmative action despite the fact he benefited from it.
Thomas is only the second member of his race to be appointed to the nation's highest court. His predecessor was Justice Thurgood Marshall, whom every African-American reveres. It is clearly galling to him that blacks generally, including those who are among the nation's top lawyers, hold him in disdain because of his conservative positions. Yet he has shown the fortitude to ride out the criticism and to conduct himself in a judicial fashion in and out of his robes. He should have remained above the fray and let time continue to heal his wounds. That may not be the current popular advice of psychiatrists or preachers, but in this case it would have been prudent from a personal and professional standpoint.
Far better for him, I think, if he had kept his insecurities to himself and dwelled more over the years on the fact that despite the outrageousness of the allegations and treatment a clear majority of senators were sympathetic. He was confirmed. Letting things go may be difficult, but it is the judicious thing to do.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.