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Supreme Court Justice Thomas Speaks Out in New Autobiography

October 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: After 16 mostly silent years on the bench of the highest court in the land, Justice Clarence Thomas is speaking out. In a new autobiography, he tells the story of his life, including his most famous and painful turn in the spotlight…

SENATOR: Judge, do you swear to tell the truth?

GWEN IFILL: … when he was accused of sexual harassment in his bitter Senate confirmation hearings.

ANITA HILL, Accused Clarence Thomas of Sexual Harassment: My working relationship became even more strained when Judge Thomas began to use work situations to discuss sex.

GWEN IFILL: Thomas still says Anita Hill was wrong. She says others have since proved she was right.

ANITA HILL: What I described happened actually did happen.

GWEN IFILL: But it is Thomas’ voice which has revived the debate.

CLARENCE THOMAS, U.S. Supreme Court Justice: It was the most inhumane thing that has ever happened to me.

GWEN IFILL: Justice Thomas is only the second African-American ever to serve on the court, but he recounts a lifetime of insult, from his youth in the segregated South, to his years at Yale Law School, to his time in Washington. In an ABC interview, he says he was criticized for being a black man with conservative beliefs.

CLARENCE THOMAS: You’ve got a sort of a new thinking that, you know, you can use race in certain other ways and that we should think a particular way, that I, because I am black, there’s a certain sort of not geographical area that I am precluded from being a part of, but there’s a certain ideological or intellectual area that’s off-limits. Oh, don’t go into that neighborhood of knowledge or ideology or political views or what have you, because blacks don’t go there. So we’ve segregated up here.

GWEN IFILL: One Thomas biographer said much of the justice’s conservative philosophy is rooted in his upbringing.

KEVIN MERIDA, Co-Author, “Supreme Discomfort”: 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 had, 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.

Filling in details of his life

GWEN IFILL: "My Grandfather's Son" arrived in bookstores this week.

Now, two views on Clarence Thomas. Christopher Landau served as his law clerk at the Federal Court of Appeals in Washington and again at the Supreme Court. He is now an attorney in private practice. And Eugene Robinson is a columnist for the Washington Post.

Christopher Landau, I want to start with you. You read this book. You have lived some of this book. What did you learn in it that you didn't know before?

CHRISTOPHER LANDAU, Former Supreme Court Law Clerk: You know, Gwen, it really filled out a lot of the details of the justice's life. I mean, I knew the rough story, like a lot of Americans, you know, growing up in Pin Point, Georgia. I think the degree to which he had to overcome obstacles, really starting in his earliest years, and then it really fleshed out his intellectual journey and what led him to some of the conservative beliefs that he holds now.

GWEN IFILL: How about you, Gene? What did you see?

EUGENE ROBINSON, Columnist, Washington Post: The voice was fascinating to me. I mean, we knew the outlines of his life. The extent to which he is angry about many things, about poverty, about racism, and angry about affirmative action in a way that seems a little topsy-turvy to me, but it's fascinating to read about.

And the voice of the book, it's the voice of a man who feels he's been wronged, he's been put-down, he's been persecuted, to use my words, not his, you know, I found that fascinating. And I hadn't anticipated quite that intensity after all this time.

Bitterness surrounding confirmation

GWEN IFILL: How about the intensity? It seemed especially during the final chapters, when he talks about his confirmation hearings, that he was, Mr. Landau, still remembering the bitterness of it, still remembering the pain of it 16 years later.

CHRISTOPHER LANDAU: You know, I think that was a very searing experience, obviously. And I think all sorts of us go through certain experiences in life that are intense, that we'll always remember. For him, you know, that one was played out on national TV, really across a world stage. And, certainly, that's something that you'd expect makes an impression on someone's life.

And I've been asked since then, you know, is he an angry man? I'd say he is not overall at all, but there are certainly certain aspects to his life that he's angry about. And I think you can't read that book without feeling the anger about that confirmation incident almost jumping off the page at you.

GWEN IFILL: Clarence Thomas in this book describes Anita Hill's testimony as "extravagant fiction," among other things. Does that hold up, Gene?

EUGENE ROBINSON: Well, my colleague at the Post, Ruth Marcus, who covered those hearings wrote a column this morning in which she points out that these were not entirely uncorroborated or unsupported allegations, the allegations of sexual harassment. In fact, there were other women who testified who, at the very least, they had been made to feel uncomfortable in their dealings, having worked for or with Clarence Thomas. They have been made to feel uncomfortable by him.

And there was testimony to the effect that there was kind of a pattern of behavior much like the pattern that Anita Hill described. Now, again, no one knows exactly what transpired between these two individuals other than the two individuals, but he does portray it as having just kind of come completely out of left field with no support whatsoever. And that's not really what's on the record.

Qualifications of Justice Thomas

GWEN IFILL: The other question, Christopher Landau, about him is that, whether he was, as President Bush famously said upon nominating him, the best man, the most qualified man for the job, even Justice Thomas says he thought that was a claim that he wouldn't make at the time.

CHRISTOPHER LANDAU: Well, listen, Gwen, he is a humble man. And I think anybody hearing that about themselves who has an ounce of humility has to question, you know, "Am I really better than everybody else in the country?"

I think, as the book points out, though, he talks about this with Boyden Gray afterwards. And Boyden Gray said, you know, look, what makes someone qualified for the Supreme Court? Is it just kind of academic excellence or is it also a deeper understanding of the Constitution and a sense of not being prey to public perceptions? There's a sense that, you know, you've been through the fire in Washington, you've been criticized, and you'll do what you think is right.

And I think Bush felt that that was a very important qualification for the job. And Justice Thomas certainly has that.

EUGENE ROBINSON: This is one of the really fascinating contradictions in the book. And one thing that strikes me is the number of contradictions that you see working inside of him. And this is one.

OK, he's 43 years old. He has one year of judicial experience. Objectively, you wouldn't say he's the most qualified person for the Supreme Court. But he can accept that there are other qualifications that, you know, beyond a baseline level of qualification that would elevate you, that would -- and so you get in and you perform and you do the best and you become a great Supreme Court justice.

Yet his experience of his years at Yale is -- you know, it starts the same, but what he takes from it is quite different.

GWEN IFILL: When he says his law degree was worth 15 cents.

EUGENE ROBINSON: Exactly. He feels it's tainted after he learns that Yale reserved a certain number of slots for minority students. And I wonder why he would internalize that in that way. I mean, you know, you're younger than me. I'm old enough to -- certainly my first job in journalism was an affirmative action job. I didn't know that until I took the job, but...

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Chris Landau this, because you know Justice Thomas personally. Is this something that it seems he has internalized over time?

CHRISTOPHER LANDAU: Look, I think the experiences all of us have in life lead to our perspectives on certain things. And I think one of the things that he brings to the table is a belief that affirmative action -- which has noble-sounding goals -- has real costs on society.

It has costs, in terms of perceptions in the white community, and I think he thinks that it has costs in terms of perceptions in the black community, and perceptions of self-worth. And he felt, when he got out of Yale Law School, he couldn't get a job because people felt like his degree really was devalued.

GWEN IFILL: So 16 years later, after he's been on the court all of this time, is it fair to say, taking a long look, that he is what his critics feared and what his supporters hoped?

CHRISTOPHER LANDAU: I think that's probably a fair assessment. I mean, I think the people who went after him in '92 were fearing that he would be a conservative, you know, strict constructionist. And I think that what he's turned out to be. So I think it probably is true.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that?

EUGENE ROBINSON: You know, I'm glad he wrote this book. I think we know more about him now. In terms of his jurisprudence, I think he is what we thought we were getting when he was confirmed to the court.

In terms of the man and the inner turmoil, I find that fascinating, and I know -- I'm still trying to figure out how he came to feel emotionally the way he felt about what has really been an astounding career, a stunningly successful career.

Preference for an anonymous life

GWEN IFILL: He tells the story in the book about the night that he found out that he had finally been confirmed after going through this cauldron. And his wife came in, told him, and he was sitting in the tub. And his response was, "Whoop-dee-damn-doo." Whoop-dee-damn-doo I guess is how you would say it.

Does that fit with you with his kind of reaction, even to the best possible news?

CHRISTOPHER LANDAU: I think so. That's very consistent with my sense, because my sense was he felt nothing in life is worth what he had to go through, and that he knows that, to the end of his days, when his obituary is written down the road, Anita Hill's name will be in there for sure. And I think he just felt like nothing's worth it.

He didn't really want to be on the court. I mean, there are some perceptions of him that he was always very ambitious and he was jockeying for this. I mean, having worked with him on the Court of Appeals before he was nominated, I know that's not true. I had lunch with him the day that Justice Marshall retired, and he was dreading any kind of retirement, because he liked being on the Court of Appeals. He liked that anonymous life.

GWEN IFILL: So after all these years of relative silence on the court, why now? Why do you think this book is being written now?

CHRISTOPHER LANDAU: You know, I think there probably comes a point in your life when you feel like you're ready to look back and you have enough perspective to look back. I think it's probably -- you know, you can't write an autobiography too early.

I think he says in the preface something that really rang true with me, that he knows he's an historical figure, and people are going to write about him. And he wants to get out his side of the story. And people are free to disagree, but at least it's on the record.

EUGENE ROBINSON: You know, writing a book is often the process of figuring things out. You know, reading the book, in a certain sense, this man who often seems very sure of himself in what he believes, it seemed that he was figuring things out as he wrote them down. So I think that's part of it. I think it's not only to set the record straight for others, perhaps just to set the record straight for himself.

GWEN IFILL: Gene Robinson of the Washington Post, Chris Landau, former clerk, thank you both very much.