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Justice Clarence Thomas' Memoir Unveils Bitterness

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Justice Clarence Thomas' Memoir Unveils Bitterness

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Justice Clarence Thomas' Memoir Unveils Bitterness

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

This Monday is the first Monday in October and that means the Supreme Court opens a new term. But the important issues on the court's docket probably will not be topic one on day one.

Also on Monday, bookstores officially begin selling Associate Justice Clarence Thomas' memoirs. Justice Thomas received a $1.5 million advance for the book, and it's being promoted by conservative interest groups.

NPR' legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has obtained a copy of the book ahead of its publication date and she joins us now.

Welcome, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG: Hi.

SEABROOK: Tell us what particularly strikes you about the book.

TOTENBERG: Well, it actually is, in some ways, a beautifully written book. But it is a book of complete bitterness and rage. It paints a portrait of a tortured and tormented soul. And his bitterness, as I've said, permeates every page of this book - leaps off of it from his days as a poor youngster in Georgia struggling against discrimination and an absent father right up to -and including his tumultuous confirmation hearing when one of his former employees, a law professor named Anita Hill, accused him of sexual harassment and he accused the Senate Judiciary Committee as subjecting him to a high-tech lynching.

SEABROOK: That phrase is what jumps out at me about this whole thing. Who does he blame for the high-tech lynching?

TOTENBERG: He blames left-wing zealots, civil rights leaders, abortion rights advocates, the press, and most of all, the Senate where he writes, for example, what gave these rich white men the right to question my commitment to racial justice. Was there no limit to their shamelessness?

SEABROOK: Who is he talking about here? Which senators?

TOTENBERG: Well, he talks about a lot of senators. For example, about Joe Biden who was then the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. He said - he called him a hypocrite, who pretends to be your friend and makes insincere promises to treat you fairly while doing just the opposite.

Of Howell Heflin of Alabama who'd been that state's chief justice, he said, the press called him courtly while he made me think me of a slave owner sitting on the porch of a plantation house. Of Patrick Leahy, who asked him a number of questions about his views on abortion, he said, he's bullying with something I just didn't give in to.

You know, Senator Heflin is dead. Senator Biden is running for president. I tried to reach him today. His spokesperson said he's unavailable. I did reach Senator Patrick Leahy at his home and here's what he said.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democratic, Vermont): Well, it's an interesting reaction he had. I simply asked a routine question about whether he had ever discussed Roe versus Wade. He surprised everybody - Republicans and Democrats on the committee - by saying he had never discussed Roe versus Wade before the hearing even though the decision came down while he was in law school.

I don't know any senator who believed that answer either Republicans or Democrats. And most people are kind of scratching their head, wondering why he wouldn't tell the truth about something like that.

SEABROOK: Nina, why did Justice Thomas write this book, do you think? And what are people close to him telling you about why he wrote it?

TOTENBERG: Well, he says in the foreword that he wrote it to make an accurate record. I spoke to one of his former (unintelligible). He's very close to him and he said, look, he wanted to write a book about his life, about growing up, what it was like growing up in America at that time, and his views and how he came to his views. (Unintelligible) said, he couldn't very well end it just as he gets nominated because other people would then characterize the confirmation hearings right about the confirmation hearings. And Thomas figured he might as well do it himself.

Now, having said that, I want to say that I've spoken today to a number of people who worked on his confirmation to get him confirmed who are his allies, and simply don't understand it because it reopens a wound that's sixteen years old that most people had moved on from. And it draws the Supreme Court into a place it doesn't want to be which is into politics.

SEABROOK: Well, we should say that Anita Hill has said nothing about this since the news started coming out about it. Correct?

TOTENBERG: That's correct.

SEABROOK: And how does this memoir compare with other autobiographies by past Supreme Court justices?

TOTENBERG: It is intensely personal, far more personal than any other memoir I have ever read. And its language is so vivid that it's almost uncomfortable at moments to read.

I'm going to read you just a little section that is not uncomfortable to read but it's so well done in a very short time that it - he wrote: By summers end my critics seemed like low-country gnats that infested our liberty county farm. I remembered how they'd swarmed at me from every direction as I walked through the fields in the cool hours before dawn. This wasn't so different except those gnats were lethal.

SEABROOK: Wow. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Thank you, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

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