Bench Memos

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Justice Thomas: Awesome, not Angry


Anyone who just saw the CBS 60 Minutes piece on Justice Thomas and his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son (due to be released 3 hours from now, if you can find a bookstore open on a Sunday night at midnight) has now seen with his own eyes what some of us have been privileged to know for a long time: that Justice Thomas is summed up by the “A” word — not “angry,” but “awesome.”

To see the Justice actually walking the ground in Pinpoint, Georgia with CBS reporter Steve Kroft, telling him what it was like growing up in the Jim Crow South, what it was like hearing a white seminary classmate say when Martin Luther King was shot, “good, I hope the SOB dies,” what it was like to have his Yale Law degree devalued because of his race, and to hear first-hand how the “high-tech lynching” of his confirmation hearing unfolded — was riveting, and moving, and inspiring.

It’s amazing to see the Justice acknowledge so calmly that Anita Hill’s lies “were a weapon to destroy me, pure and simple.” But the man explaining all this to the nation is so obviously not an “angry” man — not “settling scores” or any of the other labels that have been slapped on him over the last two days amid the press leaks about his book.

What one really takes away from this interview are the profound truths that he has expressed — with incredible candor, passion, and integrity — and with a subtlety that bears pondering and opens up new facets of the man and his story, even to those of us who have known him for decades.

A few nuggets of this interview that stood out to me:

* His grandfather and the other hard-working, honest blacks in the segregated deep South who refused to see themselves as victims, but instead told him, “Boy, get your education, because if you get it in here (pointing to his head), nobody can take it away from you.”

* Thinking he had made it to Yale Law School because of his hard work and outstanding academic record, only to learn that the affirmative-action mentality meant that others thought “you’re here because you’re black” and then seeing “the discounting of my degree before my eyes” when he had trouble getting a job after law school.

* His talk of the Black Power movement being “uplifting and envigorating” and explaining that he was a “radical” but never a “liberal” — that “liberal was too lukewarm for me.”

* His explanation that winning Senate confirmation to a seat on the Supeme Court was not what was “worth it” in his confirmation battle; what was “worth it” was fighting for truth and for what was right, because “it is always worth it to stand on principle.”

* His beautifully simple explanation that no one seems to understand in judicial confirmations these days, whether in relation to abortion or anything else: “The Constitution is what matters, not my personal views.”

I’ve been asked several times over the last few days why Justice Thomas wrote the book, and why he is speaking out now. I have not asked him that question directly, but my own guess is two reasons:

One, for the historical record to be accurate. Not for any egotistical reason — I’ve never seen anyone so brilliant be so empty of ego — but because the books and articles to date have been either inaccurate or incomplete. And much of his story is, as the book’s title suggests, that he is his grandfather’s son. He started out under the protection of his wings, and learned about hard work and virtue and faith. Along the way, his grandfather turned him out of the house, and Clarence Thomas had his doubts about the path he was on, but now, he says he has “returned to my roots, to my grandfather, and the way he raised me,” and so in a sense it is a tribute to his grandfather.

And two, it’s a gift. I actually think this book will teach more about “Giving” than another bestseller of that title by another towering figure of the late 20th century American political landscape. After the road he has traveled, Justice Thomas has a heart to reach out and extend a hand of encouragement to anyone who has felt the sting of racism, the burden of poverty, the trauma of being unjustly accused, or just despair, loneliness, or exhaustion. His story of courage, hard work, and perseverance is a great triumph, and it’s a great gift to all of us.


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