Politics & Policy

Interview with a Grandson

Clarence Thomas on his memoir.

My Grandfather’s Son, the memoir published Monday by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is the fulfillment of a promise. As Justice Thomas explained in an interview with National Review Online on Monday afternoon, “I made a promise to myself.” Citing the Golden Rule, Thomas recalls when he was “young and vulnerable,” and promised himself that when he was in the position to help others, “I wouldn’t ignore them the way I was ignored.”

Clarence Thomas famously doesn’t give interviews. But right about now, you might say he’s giving a lifetime’s worth of interviews. The occasion for all of his talking–starting with a positive 60 Minutes feature Sunday night–is not the opening of another Supreme Court term, although the new Court term does coincide with the sudden outburst of Thomas talk, but the release of his memoir. And maybe, just maybe, you can’t help but figure he’s thinking, I can live in interview-free peace after this. As he told me on Monday, “I prefer not to talk at all.”

But you could be easily fooled listening to the garrulous Thomas. When I ask him if he agrees with the early Washington Post buzz that he’s got an “angry” book out, Justice Thomas just laughs a hearty laugh. It’s the kind of full-bodied laugh that sounds like it comes from a man who lives life fully and well. But that’s no surprise if you’ve read his new memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, for that’s it exactly. The book is about living life fully and well.

And the answer is “no,” he doesn’t view it as an angry book. “That is ridiculous,” Thomas says. “What happens is that people think that is what they would be [in similar situations], and so they transpose and impose.”

Talking to Thomas, it is easy to forget you are talking to a Supreme Court justice. His straight-talking honesty is the stuff of raw father-and-son (or grandfather-and-grandson, in this case) this-is-the-way-the-world-is heart-to-hearts. Clarence Thomas may sit on the highest court in the land, but he’s an “ordinary man” and his book is “the story of the journey of an ordinary person,” he tells me

Thomas explains that he wrote My Grandfather’s Son for people who work hard and pay their bills: “I wrote it for people who are still trying . . . for people trying to sort out the problems in their lives.” It was with this audience in mind that Clarence Thomas went through the painful process of recounting past struggles, injustices, and mistakes — the history that is at the heart of the book. In My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas goes through his childhood, abandoned by his father; he goes through the racism that drove him from what he thought was his vocation to the Catholic priesthood; he goes through his struggle to know how honest to be in public life, as his peer group tried to discourage the honesty he knew his grandfather taught him; he goes through the “guilt” of his divorce. And, of course, he writes about the world-famous confirmation hearings. But don’t pick up the book for lurid details, just the all-too-human story.

(At one point in the book, Thomas tells of a woman approaching his wife, Virginia, years after the hearings. The woman was crying. She had worked for one of the groups that had opposed Thomas’s nomination. “‘We didn’t think of your husband as human, I’m sorry. . . . We thought that anything was justified because our access to abortions and sex was at risk.”)

Speaking from his Supreme Court chambers by phone on Monday, Justice Thomas explains that young people take you seriously once they know that you know what they’re going through. “Once they see that you understand them you’ve made a connection.” That’s why he wrote about his radical youth and his youthful anger at his grandfather — who, with his grandmother, raised Thomas and his brother. A young person with similar obstacles reading this book will understand that Thomas has “been there.”

“I was nine years old when I met my father,” Thomas begins My Grandfather’s Son. “When [young people] realize they can ask, ‘How did you get over being upset at your father?,” all of a sudden you have made a connection. And you can say to them, ‘There is a way out.’”

And how do you get over losing your religious faith? That’s part of Thomas’s story, too. When I ask him what it was that ultimately brought him back to the Catholic faith of his youth, Thomas tells me, “my grandfather used to say something. He used to say you just live long enough. He was right.” Life, Thomas says, “is so full of uncertainties and challenges.” He says that his “faith came back slowly . . . and then flooded in.” He recalls, “I really completed my journey home when I returned to my Catholic faith.”

And it’s that faith that keeps him in Washington. No fan of the Beltway, Thomas writes in the book that “in Washington, what matters is not what you do but what people can be made to think you’ve done.” But living there — even in such a public position–has been worthwhile regardless, “because it is our country. . . . Do you think those kids who are over in Iraq want to be there?” Did the soldiers in Normandy, or in Gettysburg? he asks. They are probably not standing on the battlefield because there is nowhere they would rather be, but they know “the job is worth doing.” What the jobs have in common are that they are “about something bigger than yourself.”

Thomas remembers fondly, both in the book and in our conversation, the nuns who taught him at the black Catholic St. Benedict’s School in the Georgia of his youth. “They were great,” he remembers fondly. “They were the ones in the segregated South who would never question–never ever, never ever–that we were inherently equal.” In their eyes, he remembers, “we were all made to love and serve God and live with him in the next life. And that was the end of it for them. And so they had the same expectations of us [the black children] as of anyone.”

But do not mistake his deep and abiding faith as a revelation of the heart of a conservative Catholic activist on the Supreme Court. That Catholicism that he’s come full circle back to doesn’t influence his Court opinions, he tells NRO. “Neither does the fact that I’m a man. Neither does the fact that I’m black. Neither does the fact that I’m a huge Cornhuskers fan.”

What faith does, though, he says, is it “sustains you. It gives you hope.” As for its role on the Court: “You take an oath to God to do this job in an impartial way.” He emphasizes that it is not just “any employment contract. . . . It would be a violation to do it as a Catholic.” Similarly, he says, it would be wrong to approach every case “as a black man . . . I am a judge.” What faith does, though, is make clear the gravity of the oath. “Faith puts value in what that oath means.”

And about that “conservative” label: I’m reminded that early on in our conversation Thomas warned against putting people in boxes. That includes putting him in a conservative one, even today. “I really never considered myself a conservative,” he says. What he is, he tells me, is what his grandfather was, what his neighbors were. “I believe in liberty. . . . I believe in personal responsibility. . . . If that’s conservative, I guess I am.”

Speaking of boxes: What would Justice Thomas tell blacks who say today what he thought in his early Yale days: That “no self-respecting black could ever vote for a Republican”? He’d say, “Grow up.” Thomas continues: “I’d say do what I did and grow up. You have to be a lot more mature than that.” He adds, “My first job [with former Senator John Danforth] was for a Republican and my first job was the best job I ever had.” And here he adds: “Judge people as individuals, don’t put them in a box.”

Thomas couldn’t exude more pride when talking about his son, Jamal (“my child is a great man”). He tells me with a knowing laugh that he sent Jamal to private school because “I didn’t want people experimenting on him in public school.” “My grandfather was the same way,” Thomas says; that’s “why he sent us to Catholic school.” Thomas says he “wanted [Jamal] getting an education in an environment conducive to learning.”

Also close to Thomas’s heart are his law clerks. When I ask him who he is closest to on the Court, he points out that the Court is “a different environment than the city. Everyone here gets along.” Thomas starts naming justices, with friendship and admiration in his voice: Scalia, Stevens . . . but then quickly stops and homes in on his SCOTUS pride and joy: “the best part of the job is hanging out with my law clerks.” He calls them, “my kids — they’re smart and entertaining. They’re a hoot.”

His best day on the Court thus far? “Any day we have the chance to do the right thing is a good day.” And with that our interview came full circle. It really is about the fundamentals. And he really is his Grandfather’s Son.

With this book, Thomas tells me, he really wanted “to leave something positive for good people.” Like grandfather, like grandson.

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