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Book Chronicles Career of Justice Clarence Thomas

May 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: October 1991, Clarence Thomas was on the verge of confirmation as only the second African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. But it all nearly came crashing down, when on the eve of the full Senate vote, law professor Anita Hill, a former Thomas protege, stepped forward to testify he had sexually harassed her 10 years earlier.

ANITA HILL, Law Professor: When I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience, I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.

JIM LEHRER: The nomination took a startling turn after that, moving beyond issues of constitutional interpretation to a he said-she said confrontation that lasted for three days, including rare Saturday and Sunday sessions. Everyone seemed to take sides. Thomas denied the charges, and he was furious.

JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS, U.S. Supreme Court: Unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.

GWEN IFILL: Thomas was ultimately confirmed in a 52-48 Senate vote. Sixteen years later, Washington Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher tell the story of the conflicted man who survived that cauldron, in “Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas.” I spoke with them recently.

Kevin, you chose to tell the story of Clarence Thomas through the prism of race. Why did you do that?

KEVIN MERIDA, Washington Post Reporter: Well, I think, Gwen, that race really is an inescapable factor in most black lives, no matter how disappointing or successful those lives have been. And I think that Clarence Thomas, unknown to many, really embraces his racial identity.

It’s a complicated identity. Sometimes he’s fine about it, he’s tortured about it, he’s confused about it, and we thought that that was an area of exploration that others had not gone down to explore.

Thomas 'very sensitive to race'

GWEN IFILL: Michael, as you researched this book and talked to people about Clarence Thomas, did a completely different portrait emerge than you expected?

MICHAEL FLETCHER, Washington Post Reporter: In some ways. Clarence Thomas is a more racially aware and racially kind of self-defined guy than most people would expect. I mean, people look at his jurisprudence and think one thing. Because he's in a conservative camp on the court, people assume that he's post-race or somehow he feels like racism is something that doesn't exist anymore.

But Clarence Thomas is very sensitive to race. And he still remembers racial incidents that have occurred in his background. So that defines himself partially through race. But at the same time, he kind of pushes against that, at the same time. It's one of the interesting things about him.

You know, he sees himself through a racial prism, but at the same time wants to be an individual and doesn't want to be held to any expectation based on race.

Thomas' background

GWEN IFILL: Michael, he was raised in Pin Point, Georgia, and Savannah, Georgia, and he was presented to the nation in 1990, I guess, 1991, as this man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, what one person calls the bootstrap myth. Was he really that?

MICHAEL FLETCHER: Well, you know, in some ways, yes, but, really, no. I mean, he was born in Pin Point but had moved to Savannah by the age of six and spent most of his childhood with his grandfather, who had a fuel delivery and wood delivery and ice delivery business. And while he was an uneducated man, his grandfather was middle class, by the standards of the Jim Crow South.

He had some money. He was able to send Clarence Thomas and Clarence Thomas' brother to Catholic school. And, actually, he had hoped that Clarence Thomas would become a priest when he was really young. So Clarence Thomas had a good education.

It's funny, we interviewed some of Clarence Thomas' classmates from Savannah, and, you know, we would ask about this kind of poverty story, and they seemed puzzled. They were like, "Clarence always had money in his pocket. I mean, Clarence would come to the candy store." I mean, he wasn't rich, and certainly he worked on the truck with his grandfather, but he wasn't like a kid wearing tattered clothing to school or something like that. You know, he had a few coins to rub together.

GWEN IFILL: Kevin, how much of what we now see in the Justice Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court was shaped by those early years?

KEVIN MERIDA: Well, I think that a lot of that is particularly with his grandfather's upbringing. His grandfather was a wise man, very stern, very disciplined, hard-working, but often had a streak of empathy to him, also. He would help those who didn't have much.

He had a fuel oil business. And sometimes, if people couldn't afford fuel oil, he'd just, you know, leave -- fill up their tanks and not worry about the fee. And his grandfather was someone he admires as the most important person in his life.

But there were other things. I mean, there were slights, wounds that exist in his childhood. He talks about being teased on the playground, called America's blackest child, because he had dark skin. He had a sense of color and class consciousness that stays with him today.

I mean, he talks about how his grandfather, because the grandfather was an illiterate man, he wasn't in the same social strata as other, more accomplished blacks, and he's held onto that. He thought that, you know, his family and others were kind of looked down upon.

I mean, even when he went to Yale Law School -- and this is maybe the underpinning of his opposition to affirmative action -- he saw at Yale, in his class of 10 black students, many who, you know, really didn't need affirmative action, in his view, that they were people who came from well-to-do backgrounds, they were beneficiaries because of their race.

And he tended to gravitate more toward the students in his class who came from working-class backgrounds. He's maintained that sense of color and class consciousness.

GWEN IFILL: How did his confirmation hearings shape who he is as a justice on the Supreme Court?

MICHAEL FLETCHER: It was such a searing experience and scarring, and scars remain with Clarence Thomas. Many people believe that that kind of cut off communication. And some people who talk to him say that, even now, he keeps in his head kind of a list of people who were with him and against him, not that it affects how he deals with cases. They don't allege that. But they say he certainly has, you know, a strong recollection of who his friends were.

GWEN IFILL: How did his experiences arising from his confirmation hearings perhaps affect his relationship with other justices on the court?

MICHAEL FLETCHER: Clarence Thomas has a good relationship with most of the justices. I mean, contrary to his public image, in private, he's a very warm, engaging guy. You know, people find him very accessible.

It's interesting. Around the court, not just with the justices, but with the common court employees, he's a very popular figure. The cafeteria workers, elevator operators all say they have meaningful conversations with Justice Thomas, because they find him to be a down-to-earth guy who's actually interested in their lives and he makes himself very accessible.

Response to Scalia comparison

GWEN IFILL: Is he aware and does it matter to him that he's viewed so negatively by some in his own race?

KEVIN MERIDA: I think it matters to him very much. In fact, he gave a speech in 1998 to the National Bar Association convention. It was really the largest gathering of African-Americans that he had spoken with, and he hasn't been since.

And he said that, you know, his efforts have been to help, not to hurt black people. And he really kind of poured his heart; it was partly combative and partly defiant. He thinks that he has been framed because of his viewpoints, and that really troubles him, because he doesn't really want to be outside the fold of the race.

GWEN IFILL: You talked, Kevin, to Justice Scalia about him and to other justices. People say that Clarence Thomas is Justice Scalia's puppet, that he just votes his way all the time. What does Justice Scalia say to that?

KEVIN MERIDA: He really thinks it's a slur on him. He said it's a slur on him as much as it is on Thomas that, you know, Thomas has compared him favorably to him, like he's somehow lesser, that they both share similar ideologies and legal philosophies, and yet, you know, Scalia is seen as the giant and Thomas is seen as the mouse.

Scalia is also kind of puzzled by the reaction in the larger black community against Thomas. He points out that Italian-Americans are liberal, but he says, "They're all proud of me," and he doesn't understand why there's not more of a sense of, "Here's the second African-American justice." Why isn't there more pride of this accomplishment? And so he thinks it's a product of political hatred and perhaps racial hatred.

GWEN IFILL: Michael, one of the great curiosities about Justice Thomas is why he's so quiet on the bench. Did you get anything -- did you get anything on that?

MICHAEL FLETCHER: He feels that the advocates who come to the court should be given their half an hour to make their arguments to the court not interrupted. If you ever go up to the court, it's a rapid-fire kind of exchange.

And some of his clerks that add to that say Clarence Thomas is not good in that kind of quick exchange. They say he likes to ask follow-up questions. He wants to kind of have just a dialogue, and that's not possible in oral argument. And the capper, as an another clerk said that, as much as -- if people make an issue of Clarence Thomas not speaking, he's going to be less likely to speak, because he has a stubborn streak.

Happy on the court?

GWEN IFILL: Do you think that Clarence Thomas is thriving on the court or is he confined by it?

KEVIN MERIDA: Yes, I think he feels burdened by his existence, you know, exhausted in some ways, really uncertain of his place. You know, it was interesting. There was a guy who came up to the court to visit him, and Thomas invited him to lunch. And he just asked him a simple question, how things were going.

And when Thomas had a lackluster, "OK," he decided to pursue this. Was he happy on the court? And according to this person that we talked to, Thomas said that, you know, he would rather be doing something else, you know, maybe like his grandfather, being a small businessman.

So I think that there is -- while he understands he occupies an important place, and this is the most prestigious tenured job in public life, I think there's a wistfulness to be doing something else where he can have his anonymity and be away from the scrutiny that he often gets.

GWEN IFILL: Michael, do you get the sense that he has defined the court that he sits on?

MICHAEL FLETCHER: In some ways. I think in the future, he may well. I mean, Clarence Thomas is the most conservative justice on the court right now. And his concurrences and dissents go much farther than, say, Antonin Scalia's, than Judge Roberts seems to be willing to go. And so I think, in the future, Clarence Thomas could be seen as kind of the conservative beacon here, depending on where the court goes, of course.

GWEN IFILL: The name of the book is "Extreme Discomfort." Michael Fletcher, Kevin Merida, thank you both very much.


KEVIN MERIDA: Thank you, Gwen.