The Front of the Motor Home (Clarence Thomas 60 Minutes)
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, has just written his memoirs, My Grandfather’s Son. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Sixty Minutes did a thirty minute feature on Justice Thomas last night to help promote it. Yes, this is the same Sixty Minutes that went after George W. Bush’s military service during the 2004 election. It’s a little tricky to do news features on sitting justices. For one, as a matter of ethics they can’t discuss specific decisions of the court. They also have to take care to limit their comments on topics that might come before the court.
Instead, I learned that when the justice is not writing opinions that claim that anything that isn’t literally in the Constitution is unconstitutional, he likes to motor home in a forty foot long RV. As metaphors go, this one was fascinating. Thomas’s predecessor, Thurgood Marshall as counsel for the NAACP in the fifties, played a key role in getting blacks out of the back of the bus. Here was Justice Thomas not only sitting in the front, he was the driver and owner. Fwiw my mother and stepfather are avid motor homers. Still, the image of Justice Thomas traversing the country in a sub 10 mile per gallon vehicle at a time like this seemed characteristically out of step.
Segment host, Steve Kroft, definitely didn’t hit very hard. He’s the same guy who did the Bill and Hillary Clinton adultery interview back in 1992. He also didn’t hit especially hard on that occasion. There was, for instance, no mention of how close the confirmation vote was for Clarence Thomas. In addition, they let him tell his side of the Anita Hill story without a suggestion that there might be another side. They also never mentioned that nominee Thomas had the lowest rating ever of any prospective justice from the American Bar Association at the time of his nomination. This isn’t unusual. There are just certain things Supreme Court Justice can’t do or talk about in a television interview.
Certainly, it was interesting to see the way that Justice Thomas grew up. His father left when Clarence Thomas was two years old, his mother couldn’t support her two sons, and Thomas and his brother were raised by his grandparents, hence the title of the book. Sixty minutes did not mention that Thomas's older sister, Emma Martin, stayed behind in Pin Point, Georgia. The show also didn't mention that Thomas has been married twice. In fact, they didn't mention that he has a sister. According to Thomas, his grandfather was extraordinarily stern, putting his grandsons to work constantly, and insisting that his own word was gospel. Thomas supposedly acquired a belief in hard work and personal discipline above all else from his grandfather.
His grandfather also stressed the importance of education and Clarence Thomas attended Catholic school where he decided that he wanted to enter the priesthood. According to Thomas, he left his training for the priesthood after he overheard a white member of the order say that the assassination of Martin Luther King was a good thing. When Clarence Thomas returned home, his grandfather kicked him out (My Grandfather's Son indeed) Thomas then became a radical in his time at Holy Cross, but remained a very good student. From there, he went to Yale Law School where he was troubled by his perception that he was being treated differently because of affirmative action. After graduation, the only job he could find was with John Danforth, a Missouri Republican.
The twin experiences of Yale and working for a Republican converted Thomas from being a radical to being a conservative Republican. Once that happened, Thomas started getting jobs easily. He told Kroft that he went through five confirmation hearings (most political appointments have to be confirmed by the senate) in a ten year period after he came to D.C.
Thomas flatly denied all of Anita Hill’s allegations and reiterated his belief that his use of the phrase “high tech lynching” during his own confirmation was appropriate. He also took the rather surprising view that the fight over his nomination had been covertly about his refusal to state a clear position on abortion. According to Kroft, Thomas believes that the constitution did not include any mention of abortion, actually modern therapeutic abortion didn’t exist at the time, and the matter is therefore an issue for the individual states. Kroft did not bring up the fact that television, automobiles, telephones, antibiotics, health insurance, and the internet also did not exist at the time of the framing of the constitution.
At one point, Kroft mentioned that Justice Thomas has actually written his “share” of opinions during his tenure. He, however, omitted any mention of the number of lead or majority opinions that Justice Thomas has written, nor did he mention any opinion in which Justice Thomas’s words have been considered a definitive statement of either the constitution or the issue in question.
Somehow, I suspect that history is going to be much harder on Clarence Thomas than 60 Minutes.