Powerful Yet Despised: Clarence Thomas' Story For many, Clarence Thomas will be forever linked to Anita Hill, accusations of workplace harassment, and a bruising confirmation hearing. A new book, Supreme Discomfort, traces the conservative jurist's rise to the nation's highest court.
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Powerful Yet Despised: Clarence Thomas' Story

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Powerful Yet Despised: Clarence Thomas' Story

Powerful Yet Despised: Clarence Thomas' Story

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

For many people, Clarence Thomas will be forever linked with Anita Hill and her accusations of workplace harassment, inappropriate jokes, and, of course, his bruising confirmation hearings. Now, as the Supreme Court justice, Thomas is arguable the most powerful black man in public life. He is also arguably the most despised. That's according to a new biography called "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas."

Washington Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher followed Thomas from his childhood in Pin Point, Georgia, to his rise within the Republican Party. He held key positions in the Reagan administration, yet the public knew little of Thomas until those explosive confirmation hearings.

Kevin Merida said that experience pushed Thomas further to the right and helped harden his conservative views.

Mr. KEVIN MERIDA (Reporter, Washington Post): There was someone who is a classmate of his that said that Thomas really was a radical. And by that, she meant that with everything that he does, there's not a lot of consideration for alternative points of view. He was rigid when he was so called aficionado of Malcolm X teachings and wore berets, and he's rigid now when he's really firmly conservative. Some believe he's the purest conservative on the court, and a religionist(ph), and that there's not a lot of room for consideration of other ideas.

Thomas is really much more alone with his ideas, who gives speeches, but he's not in environments where there's a give and take. And so you wonder what is it about him that won't allow that.

NORRIS: Kevin, why did you decide to write this book?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think that - and Mike and I agree with this I think - that Thomas is probably one of the most, you know, fascinating, intriguing figures in public life. One the most unknowable, perhaps misunderstood - one of the most caricatured. It's intriguing to us that usually when you have black high achievers, you see them lifted up and celebrated.

You go to a school anywhere in the country in a black community during black history months, you will see Clarence Thomas' picture there. And so he occupies a place right now that makes him, kind of estranged from the people who look like him and the people who grew up like him.

NORRIS: Michael, you note many times in this book that he is misunderstood. How does the popular public image of Clarence Thomas differ from the man that you portray in this book?

Mr. MICHAEL FLETCHER (Reporter, Washington Post): Well, one of the key areas for me is I think his sense of, kind of, racial sensitivity. Thomas is a guy, I think, he's often perceived as being post-race somehow, a guy who doesn't connect with other black people.

But actually, Thomas is acutely aware of race, and he's not all that optimistic about race. I think that's been one of the big surprises for me about Clarence Thomas.

NORRIS: Does Clarence Thomas see himself as a victim?

Mr. FLETCHER: Yes. This is Michael talking. And it's one of the striking things about Clarence Thomas. In one way, when he gives speeches, he'll talk about don't be a victim and he talks about victimhood in the civil rights community and have black people the need to move beyond that.

But the same time, if you attend or read a Clarence Thomas graduation speech, Clarence Thomas is always the victim. Almost every public remark that he gives, sort of, at some point turns to the life of Clarence Thomas and how Clarence Thomas was victimized. He's fond of saying, for instance, during law school graduations that he got all these rejection letters when he's graduated from Yale Law School, the premier law school in the nation. And he said, he's - to this day - keeps a stack of rejection letters in the basement of his home in Virginia. I mean, that's part of Clarence Thomas.

When people visit Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court, he'll talk to people for two, two and a half hours, and quite often he'll just talk about the old wounds. He'll go back to high school. He went to a junior seminary in Savannah where he was one of the, for a while, the only black student.

And will talk about how he was ostracized there. How the whites students at night, you know, when they'd turn out the lights in the dormitory, would say, you know, Clarence, open your eyes so we can see you, or smile.

You know, that sort of thing. And he talks about his Saint Jude statue, which he won in a Latin Bee. And he put this thing on his footlocker in the dormitory at the junior seminary. And at night, someone broke the head off of the thing. The next day, Clarence Thomas glued the head back on, put it back on his footlocker. The next night, it was broken off again. He put more glue on the next day, and so on.

And those are the kinds of stories that he tells us. He'll get his yearbook off the shelf in the Supreme Court Chamber and show, and that, you know, the only black student there but I prevailed despite it all. And so yeah, I think Clarence in many ways sees himself as a victim.

NORRIS: You know, you have all these anecdotes on the book about how he is someone is so gregarious, that he loves telling stories. He loves sitting down and talking at length to people, especially children. And yet, the Clarence Thomas that we see on the court is almost mute.


NORRIS: Kevin, how do you square those two things?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, it's striking for people who come to the court. When you go to the court, you often see a, kind of, performance art, you know, leaning back and he looks up to the ceiling and rubs his chin and takes off his glasses, rubs his hands. And this proceeds and it often seems like he's not even participating in the process other than to maybe whisper back and forth with his buddy, Steve Breyer, the justice.

And so for many people, they're just puzzled by it because he is not engaging in the rapid fire back and forth. And people can't understand that. Thomas has told several different stories about that. Probably the most detailed explanation was that when he was a young man and he, kind of, had a geechy(ph) dialect which is from the coastal area of Georgia and all South Carolina, a very thick accent, and he was very sensitive about that. And he said he developed as a result of that, just this habit of listening.

You know, many have wondered well, you know, now that he's a man of, you know, 58 years old that they still has an imprint in his mind, it tells you something about the psychological wounds we can have as children.

The other times he told people that the oral arguments at the court are really just about grandstanding and too many people are really just want to hear the sound at their own voice, and he prefers to allow the advocates a chance to speak for themselves.

Scalia and Breyer have urged him to speak more just so he won't give his enemies more ammunition.

NORRIS: You actually talked to many people who are close to Clarence Thomas, and after all he's gone through to reach the, sort of, pinnacle of success. Does he actually enjoy sitting on the court? Kevin?

Mr. MERIDA: You know, we talked to one person who came to visit him. The guy asked him well, you know, how is going? Thomas said, OK. And he seemed kind of ambivalent. The guy decided to pursue it, I mean, you know, you're liking your job? And Thomas said, he would rather be doing something like his grandfather did - owning a small business. This grandfather ran a heating and oil business. And I think Thomas has these kind of wistful memories of just hard work using your hands, and sometimes I think he sees that having more value and meaning in life than what he's doing.

NORRIS: And yet, Michael, you note that he has told several people that he's going to stay on the court until his last breath, in part, to outlive his critics, or at least, to answer his critics.

Mr. FLETCHER: Exactly. He loves confounding his critics and that's one of the things he talks about in the - you know, he'll work out. He likes to lift weights and he promises to stay to the end, almost so he can have the final word.

NORRIS: Michael Fletcher and Kevin Merida, thank you very much.

Mr. MERIDA: Thank you, Michele.

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, thank you.

NORRIS: Michael Fletcher and Kevin Merida are the authors of "Supreme Discomfort: The divided soul of Clarence Thomas."

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