Friday, Dec. 14, 2001
To paraphrase Spanish essayist and philosopher Jose Ortega Y Gasset, a biography should unify the contradictions of a human life. In this respect, Clarence Thomas: A Biography, by Andrew Peyton Thomas (no relation) disappoints. The book provides hitherto unpublished details about several paradoxical aspects of Thomas's public and personal life that beg for explanations - but few are forthcoming.
The fault is not that of the author, an obvious admirer of the 106th Supreme Court Justice. Not only did Thomas refuse to speak with his biographer, Thomas also initially obstructed the author's efforts to gain access to friends and colleagues. (Indeed, a friend is quoted as saying that to remain friends with Thomas necessitates not talking about him.)
Moreover, given the vow of secrecy that shrouds Thomas's relationships, a reader might reasonably wonder how candid - and how close to the Justice - those who did speak with the biographer actually were.
A Reluctant Justice?
Strikingly, Thomas's demeanor and comments during the early stages of the confirmation process, as reported by his biographer, suggest that he would have preferred to be passed over for appointment to the Supreme Court.
When brought to the Justice Department to be informed that President George Herbert Walker Bush was considering him, Thomas reported feeling "bizarre." Then, when it became apparent that some in the Bush White House wanted a Hispanic candidate, Thomas expressed relief and took his wife, Ginni, to Annapolis, Maryland to celebrate his "nonappointment."
The next day, however, Thomas was called to Kennebunkport to meet with the President. When First Lady Barbara Bush met him at the door of the Bush residence to congratulate him, Thomas said his "heart sank."
The confirmation process itself only strengthened Thomas's already dramatic ambivalence. In remarks made to the Senate Judiciary Committee shortly before the vote, Thomas bitterly said that no "job" was worth what he had been through in a process he famously referred to as a "high-tech lynching."
Was Thomas a reluctant nominee? If so, why did he not decline the offer? Did pride overtake his almost paranoid pursuit of privacy? Or had he become resigned to the position to which he later felt God had called him?
Delivering God's Message, Accepting God's Censure
Before entering the hearing room to deliver a prepared statement prior to testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas, along with Senator John Danforth and his wife, Sally, met in a Senate restroom. There, they prayed and sang "Onward Christian Soldiers."
Then, in a blistering sermon, Thomas stood down his "accusers" who, in his mind, were "petty little thieves" trying to wrest from him his good name and what he had come to feel was God's will for him and the country--the nomination.
Once Thomas saw God's hand in the nomination, he rationalized that the brutal hearings were punishment for "past sins." But again, Peyton Thomas' biography does not even suggest possible answers to the intriguing questions it raises.
What were the misdeeds for which Thomas felt he had to atone? Might they be related to his initial trepidation about the appointment? Or his refusal to take a polygraph test to counter Anita Hill's allegations? Assuming Anita Hill's allegations were accurate, would Thomas have seen his conduct towards Hill as sinful, wrongful, neither, or both? The author neither asks nor answers these questions.
A Cold and Lonely Place
As a sitting justice, Thomas has exhibited behaviors and attitudes that raise questions about his appropriateness for the position. Famously, he refuses to participate in most oral arguments by questioning the attorneys before him as the other Justices do. While the other eight often even interrupt each other in their haste to get their questions answer, Thomas almost always stays silent.
In defense of his behavior, Thomas contends that the role of the justice is to listen, not to ask questions, and that everything he needs to know is in the briefs. But even Peyton Thomas, an admirer of the Justice, concedes that Thomas' rationales for his failure to question litigants "crumble" under scrutiny and that the Justice makes no effort to hide his boredom.
Again, though, Peyton Thomas does not complement his adept reportage and analysis with any effort to help us answer the obvious question--what are we to make of these behaviors?
The Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas
As reported by Peyton Thomas, Jeff Zuckerman, Thomas's chief of staff at the EEOC, believes that the hearings changed Thomas's attitude toward members of civil rights organizations. Initially, Zuckerman explains, Thomas accepted civil rights organization members as "good people." But later he rejected them as "basically evil" because of what he perceived as their goal of "destroy[ing] him as a human being." Another friend describes Thomas as thinking, "I'm gonna stay on the Court long enough; and I'm gonna write the decisions that will get them."
Perhaps a wish to get back at civil rights organizations who attacked him provides a clue to Thomas's staunchly anti-affirmative action stance. It is a puzzling position for one who benefited from some type of affirmative action from high school through law school and throughout his professional career. John Danforth tapped Thomas for his first post-law school job, as an attorney for the Missouri Attorney General's office, because he saw Thomas as a promising minority group member. Thomas's Supreme Court seat, too, was in part the product of affirmative action.
That leads to further questions: Is the jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas the product of what the author calls Thomas's own brand of "independent conservatism"? Or does it stem from motives of revenge? The author does not try to reconcile these countervailing influences, or to trace the true sources of Thomas's views.
Failed Memory or Hidden Animosities?
Thomas never tires of expounding upon the hardships of his childhood and the family members and parochial school nuns who nurtured him. Yet he makes no mention his aunt and uncle, Maggie and Charlie Devoe, nor of his paternal grandfather, November Thomas.
According to his biographer, though, Aunt Maggie should be credited with laying the foundation for Clarence's love of learning. And all three of these family members were instrumental in caring for him until, at the age of 7, he went to live with his maternal grandfather, Myers Anderson.
The author notes this lack of gratitude, but says only that it must stem from either the vagaries of childhood memory or "hidden animosities." The reader, unfortunately, is left wondering what the dark secrets behind these hidden animosities might be.
Will The Real Clarence Thomas Please Stand Up?
In the biography, the Thomas we meet is the Thomas who refuses to speak with the press, and who disdains personal appearances and speechmaking (except those involving schoolchildren and arch-conservative organizations). According to the author, these refusals may be part of a deliberate strategy designed to avoid "dilution" of Thomas's "star power." After all, the rareness of Thomas appearances guarantees that the Justice garners more press attention when he does appear.
There is something jarring - some might even say dishonest or hypocritical - about a public figure who complains as bitterly as Thomas that he is misunderstood, while at the same time refusing well-meaning attempts like those of this largely sympathetic biographer to understand him. The author does not explore this paradox, even though it must have been frustrating for him, as it thwarted his own efforts to write a definitive, authorized biography.
More Questions Than Answers
Frustrated by Thomas's evasive responses to some of his confirmation hearing questions, Senator Joseph Biden, then Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, remarked, "I have much more to ask you, Judge.... But, quite frankly, at this point you leave me with more questions than answers."
No doubt due in large part to its reclusive subject, the same could be said about Peyton Thomas' biography. Like its namesake, Clarence Thomas leave us with numerous unanswered questions and unresolved contradictions.
The book, however, makes a valuable contribution to those seeking additional information about this complex man. Indeed, the new details about Thomas's early childhood and his odd behaviors during the confirmation hearing serve to heighten curiosity about the personality traits and political motives have shaped him.
Had the author's reportage been weaker, the questions he raises would not recur so insistently in the reader's mind. But this is a biography whose ability to explain its subject and his motivations has largely been thwarted by the subject himself. That is unlikely to change in the future - for Thomas is unlikely to attract a more able or more sympathetic chronicler than the hardworking Peyton Thomas. If Clarence Thomas has anything to do with it, he will remain an enigma.