Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out

Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out


Sept. 30, 2007— -- Danforth moved to Washington, and Thomas decided in 1979 to join his staff, although he said, as he and Thompson had often discussed, he did not want to focus on civil rights. He also realized he lacked courage: He had once condemned blacks who thought like Sowell as "Uncle Toms," and he wrote that he realized he would face a similar fate. He was not ready to do it.

These years of Thomas's life are bleak, and the book is, at times, painful to read. He still is estranged from his grandfather, and his marriage is failing. He is unsure about his career path and struggling financially. He wrote about his feelings of hopelessness, as well as and his financial difficulties and his drinking, which he says had begun to increase.

"I drank more heavily than ever before, and though I was careful not to let my drinking interfere with my work, I knew I was on the road to trouble," Thomas wrote.

A friend suggested they train for the Marine Corps Marathon, and Thomas — having never run a marathon — begins training in June for the 26-mile race in November. He wrote that he began to see it as a metaphor for his life: "You paid the price and suffered or you didn't." He wrote that when he ran the race, he hit "the wall," and believed his legs would give way. He whispered over and over to himself, 'never quit, never quit, never quit' and barely made it to a water stop staffed by a young Marine.

"God, this is hard," Thomas told him.

"That's what you asked for," the Marine replied, without a trace of sympathy.

Thomas wrote that he "shook off my self pity" and crossed the finish line three hours and 11 minutes after he started. In the book, he compares the Marine to his grandfather and contrasts him with ambitious politicians who make 'empty promises" to smoothly assure constituents: Tell me where it hurts and I'll make it better.

Working for Danforth, Thomas continued to debate among his colleagues and other friends on the Hill about race. "I was just a low-level assistant, and I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the back-and-forth, because it was in that way that I felt we would ultimately find some solutions, honest debate, constructive debate," he says.

That fall, in 1980, he changed his voter registration to Republican and voted for Ronald Reagan. He wrote that Reagan was "promising to get government off our backs and out of our lives, putting an end to the indiscriminate social engineering of the 1960s and 1970s. I thought blacks would be better off if they were left alone."

In December of that year, Thomas attended a conference in San Francisco at Sowell's invitation and struck up a conversation with journalist Juan Williams, who would write a column about it for the Washington Post. The column included Thomas's remarks about his sister being on welfare and how his career would be "irreparably ruined" if he took a job at an agency like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a similar post "directly connected with blacks."

"I was outed," Thomas says. "That's when I knew my life would change, and it did."

After Williams's piece appeared, Thomas wrote that he could choose between being an outcast or dishonest about his views. Drinking more heavily than before, he also had decided to leave his wife, which consumed him with guilt and made him think about his grandfather's prediction that he would become just like his "no-good daddy," who had abandoned his own family.

"I left my wife and child. It was the worst thing I've done in my life, worse even than going back on my promise to Daddy that I would finish my seminary studies and become a priest," Thomas wrote. "I still live with the guilt, and always will."

It was, Thomas wrote, a time of complete despair, when he "could barely bring myself to look in the mirror." He was sleeping on the floor of his friend Gil Hardy's apartment, and his financial difficulties continued to mount. He wrote of having to decide whether to eat at Burger King or ride the bus.

In late spring of 1981, Thomas was offered a position in the Reagan Administration as assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education. His first instinct, he wrote, was to say no. "I was sure I'd been singled out solely because I was black, which I found demeaning," he wrote. But a friend tells him he can do something about racial problems or stop talking about them, to "put up or shut up."

At the Department of Education, one of Thomas's first hires would, as he wrote, turn out to be a "fateful blunder." His friend Gil Hardy asked him to "help a sister" who was leaving her law firm, so Thomas agreed to hire Anita Hill. Thomas wrote that he asked Hill why she was leaving her prestigious law firm, and she says she couldn't get a recommendation from a partner who "had asked her out, and when she declined he'd started giving her bad work assignments and performance assessments."

Thomas wrote that he decided to hire Hill — even though she said she "detested" Reagan — because he felt an "obligation to help my fellow blacks" and "remembered how hard it had been for me to land a job after graduating from Yale."

"I didn't want to treat her as I had been treated," Thomas wrote. "Her work wasn't outstanding, but I found it adequate."

In the Reagan Administration, Thomas wrote that he continues to feel isolated — not only from black liberals, but from white conservatives. Some white aides didn't trust black conservatives, he wrote, and believed no black could truly be conservative — which was as "ugly as the liberal belief that no sane black could work for Reagan."

"Early on, that was the case, that you were sort of in this no-man's land, that you didn't fit in, again, in either camp," Thomas says. "It's just like when I was in the seminary."

Thomas has discussed in speeches that he almost resigned over a controversy involving Bob Jones University, which banned interracial dating, and he describes the incident in the book. The IRS had revoked the school's tax exempt status because of its discriminatory policies, and the Justice Department decided not to pursue it.

Thomas wrote he was "shocked when the Justice Department backed down… This made us feel like non-entities within the administration and exposed us to scorn and ridicule from without." He says the case "destroyed the administration's credibility on race relations."

Thomas faults the Reagan administration for failing to advance a positive civil rights agenda, and instead only railed against quotas and racial preferences. It's hard to understand why Thomas stayed in the administration, but he wrote that he decided to do so because he believed he could solve specific problems and was determined to defend historically black colleges and universities.

"I thought I could do some good. Again, it's put up or shut up, that you play the hand you're dealt," he says. "And it wasn't much of a hand at the time, but I thought it was an opportunity to do some good, particularly with the black colleges, the historically black colleges and universities."

Thomas later would write with passion in his opinions as a Supreme Court justice about the role those schools have played and why they are important to maintain, instead of focusing exclusively on integrating white schools.

"It was all these black kids. See, the schools started for maybe the wrong reasons, but look at all the good they had done. And, also, they allowed blacks to go to school in an environment, but didn't have to fight all these battles. They could go to their football games, be members of fraternities, sororities, be leaders on their campus… They could just grow and mature," Thomas says. "Not everybody can fight every battle and still perform academically.

"Now if the schools weren't up to par, that's a separate issue," Thomas says. "But if they were, and they had these wonderful records of achievement, then why close them just because you say they're predominantly black?"

Thomas would soon leave the Department of Education to head up, ironically enough, the EEOC. He wrote that his instinct at first had been to "run, to go back home to Georgia and the uncomplicated life I had left behind so long ago," but decides to take the post when Reagan offered it to him — so long as he had "total independence."

That night, he went home alone and afraid. He brooded over his decision, his still-strained relationship with his grandfather, his abandonment of his wife and son. He recalls the words his grandfather told him when he threw him out of the house at 19: "You'll probably end up like your daddy or those other no-good Pinpoint negroes."

"His terrible words still burned in my memory a decade and a half later. Had Daddy been right after all?" Thomas wrote, the anguish evident in his words. "I poured myself a large glass of scotch and Drambuie over ice and downed it greedily, alone with my thoughts and afraid of what lay ahead."

Some months later, Thomas recognized he was becoming dependent on alcohol and decided to quit. He wrote vividly of drinking too much one night when out with an old friend, Thelma Duggin, who warned him that "loose lips sink ships."

"I drank too much and ate too little, and by the time I finally stumbled home to my sad little apartment, I was exhausted. The room was spinning and I felt queasy as I fell asleep on the old mattress I used as a bed," Thomas wrote.

Thomas wrote that he awoke the next morning with a "splitting headache" and opened the refrigerator to get something to eat.

"It was empty — except for two cans of Busch. I thought of how long it took me to clear my head the morning after I'd had even a few drinks, and vowed that those two cans of beer would be the last alcohol I ever drank," Thomas wrote. "I drew myself a hot bath and slowly downed them as I sat in it. I haven't had a drink since."

In an interview, Thomas says he was never "a drunk or anything like that," but that he had begun drinking more heavily as his problems and anxieties mounted in the early 1980s. His revelations are surprising — for all his confirmation hearings, for all the books that have been written on him, for all the weapons his critics have employed — no one has ever suggested Thomas was a heavy drinker.

He says he started drinking in college, when "you're young, you have a keg party, you drink at the game, it becomes fun, and then suddenly, as life goes on and you start having problems, you start saying, 'you know, maybe I need a drink."

Thomas says he always almost always drank at home, alone, and that as his problems grew, he saw himself drinking more frequently.

"I think when you're stressed, you — some people have a drink, some people do whatever they do, and once I saw that as becoming a crutch, you know, that had to be the end of it," he explains. "I did not have the luxury of all these problems. Who was going to pick me up if I fell? I couldn't have an alcohol problem. As my grandfather used to say, 'why make life worse for yourself' or as he would say, 'worser for yourself?' It's already bad, and I had to shed those burdens."

He also wrote in near excruciating detail about his financial problems, which persisted until he married Virginia in the late 1980s. He wrote in the book of unopened bills piling up, nearly being evicted from his apartment more than once, being forced to take out high-interest loans — and the humiliating experience of a rental car employee cutting up a credit card when he was on a trip out of town because the company had cancelled it.

"Finances were a chronic difficulty. I mean, remember, there was nobody to support me. From the time my grandfather put me out, I was on my own," Thomas says.

But it was only when he saw his grandfather's financial statements — which he had to produce when he was facing a confirmation hearing in the early 1980s — did he realize just how little money Anderson made.

"It made me even more angry to know he had worked that hard for so little — and that we'd all worked so hard for so little," Thomas says. "I was angry at everybody. I was just…a tinder. I was waiting for a match to be thrown. I mean, I was just a conflagration waiting to happen and any little thing would set me off, and that was just one more thing.

"You start out with that, and you constantly are digging this hole of debt to get through school, to get started in life, to buy a suit, to get enough gas in your car, to buy an old piece of car, to buy a tire," Thomas says. "So everything was deficit spending, and I wasn't the federal government — I couldn't print money. So you had to go out and earn it, and I didn't earn very much."

There was, he says, "no shoulder to the road" of his life. He talks with deep conviction and stirring poignancy of being alone, without a safety net if he fell.

"There was no margin for error in my life… I couldn't make a mistake, I couldn't become a drug addict, I couldn't have kids out of wedlock, I couldn't be arrested. I had to live life without any of those problems, because I didn't have the luxury of those problems," Thomas says. "Who was going to bail me out? Who was going to give me time to clean up my life? I didn't have it. It's similar with the debt. I had nobody who could supplement my income. I was on my own, and there was nobody to supplement my life."

He describes his life in vivid terms, analogizing it to a drive down the California coastal highway, forever conscious that he is perilously close to the cliff and the rocks below.

"There was no shoulder to my road of life. I had to stay on the road," he says. "If you could imagine that highway…along the California coast, where there's that steep drop off, that was my life.

"And so I had to be careful, and I had to make sure that when I had a problem, I had to nip it in the bud. And when I saw alcohol becoming a problem, I nipped it in the bud," he says. "I had a child to raise. I had responsibilities, and I had to discharge those and, thankfully, I did."

Thomas says he saw the cliff all long, and that he inched closer to it as he "found the difficulties in his life mounting and that being a way to just go home and have a couple drinks at night — as a way to soothe it."

"And when that began happening, I said, 'I'm done,'" he says.

Looking back on his life and struggles, he talks about his experiences integrating all-white worlds, and the extraordinary pressure and stress that produced. It has shaped his views on racial policies, which he says he believe focus too much on defending theories of affirmative action instead attending to the needs of the individual child.

"There were lots of dark moments, and that is why, if you notice, I'm very reluctant to impose or inflict on other kids all these grand theories that people have," Thomas says. "You don't know what you're putting on these kids. People wouldn't do it. I've asked them, 'Would you do this to your own child?' and they say, 'No.' Well why would you do it to somebody else's child?

"You don't know these lonely moments. You don't know how it is to have no money and no shoes or old boots and things like that. You don't know how it is not to be able to afford to go home when other kids are on spring break," he says. "You don't know how it is when you walk in a dorm room, and you're the only black kid there. You don't fit in.

"You know, they're talking about whether or not their kid has the right kind of computer to fit in. Well, you can change the computer. You can't change you," he says. "And all these burdens, at some point, you wear a person down. So yes, I mean, there were burdens all along, but you can't give into them, and you certainly don't want to create more problems.

"I didn't have the luxury of making big mistakes," Thomas says, "I barely had the luxury of making small mistakes."

Thomas appears shocked — he is completely taken aback, then becomes angry — when it's suggested that his critics could make the link between his drinking and the time that he worked with Anita Hill.

"That's a stretch. That's really a stretch," he shoots back. "First of all, I was never a drunk, OK?

"I didn't have the luxury of being a lush. I didn't have the luxury of being a drunk," he says. "I mean, the question should be about what were people doing to you that was so bad."

"They can say whatever they say, but there is somebody out there right now who has a problem with alcohol," Thomas says. "And the only way to identify with them is to be honest — that you saw something like that coming down the track."

Thomas says he wrote the book for those people — not for his critics.

"The choice is between honesty and dishonesty… and I didn't think I could write a sham of a book that says, 'I'm this great guy, and I did this and that, and I didn't have this particular problem.' That's not true. You do your best to communicate honestly with people, with people who need help.

"There was a point in my life when I could have used a book like that — when I was a kid. I mean, who would provide the leadership for me to come out of Georgia? My grandfather did all he could. My grandmother did all she could. Who would say to me, 'There's a way out of there to greater heights?' No. Who would put the crumbs down? Who would blaze the trail? Who would reach back and say, 'I traveled this path. It was really hard, but I was just like you?'

"I would have wanted somebody to be honest with me, someone to come back and say, 'I was there with you, just like you — I was there just like you are,' not that 'I'm greater than you are,' not that, 'I'm stooping down to touch you or condescending to you,'" Thomas says. "'I was there, and I can't solve all your problems, but here is a way that might work. I don't have all the answers, but here is something that I humbly submit might work.'"

"And that's not just for blacks. That's not just for kids. That's for everybody who's still trying to be hopeful with their problems," Thomas says. "You can't have it both ways. You can't say, 'I had no problems, but I could help you.' You've got to say, 'I had those problems, and I want to help you and be a part of your solution.'"

Thomas then talks about meeting and mentoring children, and visiting with the football players at the University of Nebraska, many of whom have their own personal and family struggles, which he has counseled them through. Traveling with Thomas outside of Washington, D.C., he engages with others and is at ease with himself, his booming laugh frequent. He listens closely — to students, security guards, "real people" — instead of holding Court. He asks questions. He offers encouragement.

"If I come down from Mount Olympus to them, how do they identify? How do we bond? You saw their eyes. Those are kids," he says. "They're just like me, and I see myself in them."

To continue on to Part V: Finding Peace, please click here.

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