SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
For the first since he took his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas has spoken out in vivid detail about events surrounding his nomination battle, the charges of sexual harassment against him by Anita Hill and his memories of being reared by his grandfather in rural Georgia.
The justice has written a book called "My Grandfather's Son" in which he says he was pursued by a mob of liberal activist groups and reporters. He says, I was being pursued, not by bigots in white robes, but by left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony. Mr. Thomas' book is being heavily promoted including by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society.
NPR's Nina Totenberg covered those hearings in 1991 and joins us.
Nina, thanks for being with us.
NINA TOTENBERG: My pleasure.
SIMON: I turned, immediately found your name once as one of two reporters who received a leak of Anita Hill's complaints. From what you've been able to read in the Justice's book, what are some of the remarks or stories that draw your attention?
TOTENBERG: Well, this really is the portrait of a tortured human being from his youth to his publicized confirmation hearing when his former employee, Anita Hill, accused him of sexual harassment. And Thomas at the hearing said this was a high-tech lynching.
Throughout the book he describes himself as under siege, first in his childhood from bigots in the Deep South, then even in an odd sort of way from his demanding grandfather who threw him out of the house when he left the seminary. Then, in Washington at the EEOC, he saw himself as the victim of civil rights leaders who opposed his policies.
As a child he writes, he'd grown up fearing the Ku Klux Klan. Now, I wondered if I had been afraid of the wrong people all along. My worst fears were confirmed in Washington where I was pursued, not by bigots in white robes, but by left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony.
And, then of course, there were the hearings. The mob I now face, he wrote, carried no ropes or guns, its weapons were smooth-tongued lies spoken into microphones and printed on the nation's - on the front pages of the nation's newspapers.
And as to the senators on the Judiciary Committee, Thomas is unsparing, regardless of whether they're dead or alive or still serving on the Judiciary Committee. Of the late Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama he said, the press described him as courtly but he made me think of a slave owner sitting on the porch of a plantation house.
And of Senator Joseph Biden now running for president he said, he was like the lying hypocrite in the song "Smiling Faces Sometimes."
SIMON: I want to ask about Anita Hill. She's now a professor at Brandeis. She has, as I understand it, refused to comment. What does Justice Thomas have to say about her?
TOTENBERG: And let's not forget - for those who are too young to remember -she, too, is African-American. He said she was a mediocre employee, a touchy person who would never avoided 10 years to accuse him if he'd really done something wrong, and that she misrepresented herself in 1991, that she had been, in fact, been a devoutly religious Reagan administration employee but, as he puts in the book, a left-winger who had never expressed any religious beliefs and had a job only because I'd given it to her.
SIMON: Justice Thomas reportedly received a-million-and-a-half dollars for this memoir, says he wrote the book to have his version of history and his life on the record.
Still, this is such a personal book. In fact, he even says, at one point, he contemplated suicide. Is it unusual for a sitting Supreme Court justice to write such a personal book?
TOTENBERG: It's unprecedented. And what has court watchers really buzzing is not that Thomas has said anything new. He hasn't, after all, said anything that's really beyond the high-tech lynching. But that was all 16 years ago. And in a real sense, it's long gone.
If you're 30 years old, you probably never had heard of Anita Hill until the front pages of the nation's newspapers today. This book will revive the controversy. It's being promoted by conservative groups. Once again, it'll put Thomas in the eye of the hurricane of these allegations. It could even bring out people who will accuse him once again.
And in an interview with "60 Minutes," he lamented that confirmation hearings dragged the Supreme Court into politics. But that's just what he - that he's done. And although you can be sure that his fellow justices won't say anything publicly, they're not going to like this.
SIMON: Thanks very much, Nina Totenberg.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.