Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out

But on the last day of June, President Bush phoned Thomas in his chambers in Washington. He asked him to come to Kennebunkport to discuss it with him, so Thomas flew up alone, not sure if he was being interviewed or selected. Virginia suggested he write a statement just in case. At her suggestion, he inserted in the statement that it was "only in America" that someone with his humble background — a poor black child from the segregated South — could grow up to become a Supreme Court nominee.

As Bush introduced Thomas to the nation, Thomas heard the clicking of the cameras, which he wrote "sounded like summer rain falling on the tin roof of our hand-built house in Liberty County, the individual drops blurring together in a steady pitter-patter." Standing beside the President, Thomas thought of his grandparents, and he suggests he had a sense of foreboding. He wrote that he recalled the ants he had watched as a child on the farm, building hills one grain of sand at a time, "only to have them senselessly destroyed in an instant by a passing foot."

"I'd pieced my life together the same way, slowly and agonizingly," he wrote. "Would it, too, be kicked callously into the dust?"

Facing the cameras, Thomas unfolded the piece of paper on which he'd written his statement, and he thanked "all those who have helped me along the way… especially my grandparents, my mother, and the nuns." His voice broke, and he was overcome by emotion. He struggled to compose himself. "I look forward to the confirmation process and an opportunity to be of service once again to my country and to be an example to those who are where I was and to show them that, indeed, there is hope."

His nomination should have been, Thomas says today, "a positive, important moment — a celebration of my grandparents' life." Instead it would become the most bitterly fought Supreme Court battle in modern history, one that would scar Thomas deeply, to the point that 16 years later he sometimes seems too wounded to discuss it.

He says he blames himself for feeling a moment's pride, but it would not last long. Immediately after Thomas finished his statement, Bush took questions from the journalists gathered before him. The second one he received was about whether Thomas was, in fact, the most qualified nominee. Bush, instead of saying he thought it was important to have someone of Thomas's background and race on the Court — much as his son would later seek to do in seeking a woman to replace Sandra Day O'Connor — responded forcefully that race had not played a role.

He said Thomas was the "best qualified (nominee) at this time," but he did not explain what he meant by that, leaving the impression that Thomas was the most qualified nominee, regardless of his race or the political climate or whether he would stick to his views once on the Court — things that presidents typically consider when making a selection.

It was an obvious absurdity, and it created a dynamic which put Thomas in the position of forever defending his qualifications.

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