Monday, October 01, 2007

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.



At 10/02/2007 09:24:00 AM, Blogger None said...

Thanks for taking on this topic. I have seen little around the net. Not that I have looked very hard.

CT has been a disaster. I've heard that he takes more "gifts" than any other justice.. and seems less interested in writing opinions.

A bit of a side note.. We saw "North County" the other day (Charlize Theron). That movie makes reference to Hill/Thomas. And, just to reflect a little on my memories of that Oct. slug fest... It was awful. The whole "coke" thing. And the wall-to-wall coverage. This man is supposed to be a Justice.. and to be accused of such language makes me cringe. And its surreal to read about David Brock's role in the mess. Just some crazy stuff.

At 10/02/2007 03:40:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

Jeffrey Toobin, in his new book, The Nine, says that CT is the most conservative, even more so than Scalia.

If the open wound is Bush v Gore terms of SCOTUS, the scar I still feel is when Thomas was confirmed by the Senate. His judicial record was not vetted well. And I still believe Anita Hill. But unfortunately, Nessenbaum sold her down the river, and Kennedy did not have the political capital at the time to be of assistance to Hill either.

Sounds a trip to the Public Library to look at this is in order. I am not going to line Thomas' pockets with my discretionary income.

As I missed this 60 minute show, the summary and analysis are good to read here. Thanks, CL!

At 10/02/2007 04:35:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I really liked North Country. I kind of questioned Charlize Theron as an iron miner, but she was very good in it. fwiw, I think they should have taken Thomas's lack of qualifications for the court straight on.
I tend to believe Anita Hill, but what's wrong with saying that he wasn't sufficiently qualified to serve on the highest court yet?

I agree with Jeffrey Toobin. Thomas's opinions are like seeing some ancient extinct species.
I guess you if anyone as access to a library and you're right, I should order this one from the library rather than buying a copy.

At 10/03/2007 02:08:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never seen more "palpable rage" than in the pieces of the '60 minutes' segment I've come across. If the obvious serenity of Anita Hill and the obvious edge-of-the-cliff rage of Mr. Thomas are clues to "the truth," I think believing Anita Hill would be wise.

Besides, most women of that era went thru similar rot with some leering gonadally fixated dude which, odiously, no one would believe of such 'an upright man.' What a joak.

At 10/03/2007 10:25:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

One thing that got held against Anita Hill is that she followed him to another job. One odd thing about Thomas's position on Anita Hill is that he claims that she wasn't that strong an employee, yet he brought her to another department of the Federal Government.

I wonder what Clarence Thomas's first wife has to say about all of this.


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