Law & the Courts

Clarence Thomas in His Own Words: An Interview with Michael Pack

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., June 6, 2016 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The director of the forthcoming documentary on Justice Clarence Thomas discusses the jurist’s life and record.

Clarence Thomas’s journey from the bowels of the segregated South to the Supreme Court is a quintessentially American story, one of a man’s triumph over adversity and embrace of a country that once held his ancestors in bondage. The events Thomas chronicles in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, come to life in Michael Pack’s upcoming documentary Created Equal: Clarence Thomas In His Own Words. In the film, Justice Thomas sits before the camera and relays his story to the audience, from his humble beginnings in rural Georgia, to his entry into the seminary, to the drama and theatrics of the Anita Hill saga, and more. I had a chance to watch the documentary, which hits theaters tomorrow, and speak to director Michael Pack about the film.

John Hirschauer: What prompted you to make a documentary about Clarence Thomas?

Michael Pack: Well, I had heard from some mutual friends that Justice Thomas was getting tired of having his story told by his enemies, and he was tired of [hearing people repeat] half-truths and myths about him, and so I met with him. When I met with him, I hadn’t really known much about him other than his dramatic confirmation hearing. But researching his background and reading his memoir, I felt it was really a story that needed to be told, and I passionately wanted to do it.

JH: Much of the documentary is, as you say, biographical and retraces life events that Thomas describes in his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son. Which moment from his upbringing, in your opinion, had the biggest impact on the man who now sits on the Supreme Court?

MP: So, our film is called Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words because he tells the story in his words, looking directly at the camera. It’s based on a 30-hour interview I conducted with Justice Thomas and his wife, Ginny. They are really the only interviews in the film. There’s archival footage, stills, graphics, but they’re the only interviews. So, rather than my opining on him, I let him tell his life story. In the film, [Thomas says] that the moment that changed his life was the walk that he took to his grandfather’s house. He had been living with his mother and his brother in squalor in Savannah, in horrible poverty; you know, not enough to eat, cold in the winter, terrible hunger, and poverty, aimlessly drifting. When he took that walk — even though it was only a few blocks — to his grandfather’s house, that changed his life, because it was knowing his grandfather and being raised by his grandfather that set him on the path he is still on today.

JH: Race is a central theme in Thomas’s life. Your film chronicles his experience as a black boy in the segregated South, as well as the “Uncle Tom” caricatures that followed him for much of his life. One moment that stuck out to me was Thomas’s reaction to school-busing efforts in Massachusetts during the 1970s. After watching the discord and division wrought by the Massachusetts busing policy, Thomas said: “I knew one thing. Nobody was going to have a social experiment and throw my son in there.” What did that statement reveal to you about the way that Thomas views and understands race relations in America?

MP: Justice Thomas, after the quote that you just cited, goes on to say, “It was like they had a theory and then added people. Like instant coffee. Have the instant coffee, add water.” And that’s what he doesn’t like. I mean, he believes in things that work, that enable African Americans to succeed, not just theories. He felt strongly that the — I mean, at the moment you cited, he still thinks of himself as a liberal, you know, voting Democratic, and I think he saw that these liberal theories weren’t actually helping in practice. And in the case of busing, as he says in the film, they were busing poor blacks who were going to failing schools to other failing schools where poor whites live. So, what’s the benefit for poor black kids? He said to us in parts of the interview that we didn’t use, that when he was at the — I think it was at the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], he asked for more research and data on what was the effect of busing, and he discovered that, really, the point of busing was not to benefit the educational achievement of these young African-American kids, but was to help speed integration. Make white people more comfortable living with black people. As he said, “that isn’t how it was sold. These parents of these poor black kids wanted a better education for their kids.” And, as he also said, he cited his grandfather, who did not like busing either, saying, “Now these kids are spending more time on a bus, and no one ever learned anything on a bus.”

So, Justice Thomas’s feeling, I think, is to look at programs that work and not just the theory behind them.

JH: There are a handful of references made in the documentary to Thomas’s natural-law jurisprudence; some coming from Thomas himself, others from clips that you play of senators during Thomas’s confirmation process. Justice Thomas’s natural-law principles now have another exponent, Justice Neil Gorsuch, on the Supreme Court. How much, in your estimation, did Thomas’s Catholic education and seminary formation influence his eventual commitment to natural-law jurisprudence?

MP: Well, I think Justice Thomas came to his natural-law thinking was through having hired these two senior fellows at the Claremont Institute to work for him when he was at the EEOC. They were hired as speechwriters, but they also talked political theory with him; that is, Ken Masugi and John Marini. They did not come to their natural-law thinking through Catholicism. I’m not sure what their own religious commitments are, but they were students of Harry Jaffa at the Claremont Institute, who is not Catholic, [but] Jewish; he came to it through the study of Lincoln. Then, from Lincoln, he studied the Founding and the Declaration. So, I would say in the end it is true that Justice Thomas’s Catholicism dovetails also with the natural-law philosophy, but I think, in its origins, in his thinking about it, it didn’t begin there.

JH: I think the documentary does a tremendous job highlighting the fervor surrounding Justice Thomas’s confirmation hearings and the Anita Hill fiasco. One theme I noticed in your depiction of Thomas’s opponents during the confirmation process was the prevalence, of course, of the abortion issue, and how it propelled the sense of mania surrounding the hearings. What do you think Justice Thomas’s experience says about the way we debate abortion in the United States?

MP: Well, I think that the focus on abortion during his hearings indicates that it wasn’t a debate at all. I mean, people assumed they knew what Justice Thomas thought about abortion, perhaps, because he was Catholic, right? There’s an assumption Catholics are anti-abortion. Because of that, they simply wanted to get him off the court. There was no debate at all. There was no discussion of abortion during this process. I think it indicates the extent to which this is simply a polarizing issue about which people are actually not reflecting, deliberating, or thinking.

JH: There is a moment in Justice Thomas’s confirmation hearings, which you highlight in the documentary, where Thomas is asked by Orrin Hatch whether he has any plans to withdraw from the confirmation process. Thomas, famously, replies by saying “I would rather die than withdraw.” Obviously, there is a parallel here to Thomas’s relationship with his grandfather, who taught him to never “cry uncle” in the face of adversity. What struck you most about that moment, and why did you decide to include it?

MP: I included it because, as you say, it ties into what his grandfather taught him and, hence, the theme of the documentary, which tells his full life story. So that’s why I included it. I think that the thing that he got from his grandfather, and something that I think is central to Thomas’s character, is this resilience. An unwillingness to capitulate under pressure. I think the more pressure you put on Thomas, the less likely he is to capitulate. In some ways, it began at the beginning. He says in the film, when he was born his mother said he was too stubborn to cry. So, perhaps it goes deeper than just his grandfather’s training. But he does not like being pushed around and told what to do and think. When you try to tell him he should withdraw, he is less likely to withdraw. I will say, as somebody who tried to direct Justice Thomas in the interview, he was not an easy person to direct! He makes up his own mind and sticks with it, and that sense of him, I think, is very crucial to his character and is a thread of the entire film.

JH: At the end of the documentary, Thomas looks longingly at a bust of his grandfather, which sits above his desk in his chambers. I was struck by Thomas’s reflection that his grandfather was “uncorrupted by modern thinking.” I have an inkling, but I’m curious what you think Thomas meant by that.

MP: I think that he meant — and this ties into something we were talking about earlier — I think that he meant his grandfather was not likely to view the world through these extreme theoretical lenses that Thomas does not think much of. His grandfather was a very practical man. He wanted to do what worked. You know, his grandfather was skeptical of busing, as we said earlier. His grandfather was skeptical of, say, urban renewal, you know, that you could tear down a neighborhood and build something better because you’re a city planner and you know more than the people who live there. I think he meant that sense that he had of his grandfather when he said that he was “uncorrupted by modern thinking.”

JH: Is there one theme that you want people to take away from the documentary?

MP: I want them to be inspired by Justice Thomas’s life. I, personally, was inspired. I am inspired by this quality of resilience that we talked about before, his unwillingness to give up in the face of adversity, and his unwillingness to define himself as a victim. He had a good basis to define himself as a victim. He grew up really poor, he had difficult beginnings, and he grew up in the segregated South. He had lots of things to blame and he chose not to. I think all of us are tempted to do that in a smaller way, and I think Justice Thomas’s example is a good example for all.

JH: Michael Pack, thank you very much.

MP: Thank you.

John Hirschauer is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review Institute.

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