Anger Still Fresh in Clarence Thomas' Memoir

Book review of "Grandfather's Son"


Oct. 3, 2007 — -- Sixteen years have passed since Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court, but his remarkable, awful and bizarre confirmation hearing may still be better known than anything he has said or done since.

Now Justice Thomas has told his own side of that story in an autobiography chronicling his life from his birth in Pinpoint, Ga., until his confirmation battle. It is called "My Grandfather's Son."

Thomas' anger seems as fresh now as it did in 1991 when he called the hearings "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves." None of this is entirely new. What is new is that Thomas has chosen to write about these events now, 16 years later, as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Of Anita Hill, the woman who accused Thomas of pressuring her to date him while she worked as a lawyer in his office, he writes that she was an outspoken liberal who detested President Reagan, but he hired her anyway when a close friend asked him to "help a sister." He describes her work for him as "mediocre."

In her last year at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission , he says, she stopped coming to morning meetings "as a result of a quarrel with another staff member," she displayed "a rude attitude toward the other members of my staff" and she "seemed far too interested in my social calendar."

In a somewhat pettier vein, he adds that she had "bad breath," that the idea he might have wanted to date her was "laughable," that nobody on his staff liked her and that "the first thing she did [when she went with Thomas to work at the EEOC] was claim the largest office in my suite."

As to the larger question of why he thinks she testified against him, Thomas guesses that she was motivated by "a combination of ego, ambition and immaturity."

Thomas argues that the Hill hearings were nothing more than the last in a long series of efforts to destroy him and torpedo his nomination to the court. Prior to the leak of Hill's statement, he had already swatted down accusations that ranged from wife-beating to drug abuse to draft dodging. When those efforts failed and it looked as though his confirmation was assured, says Thomas, his opponents stooped to relying upon the racist stereotype of the black man who is a sexual predator.

Thomas does not discuss evidence cited elsewhere to support Hill's claims, such as the Judiciary Committee staff's interview with Angela Wright, another EEOC employee who said that Thomas pressured her to date him in a manner similar to what Hill had described. He believes he doesn't need to prove his innocence to anyone.

"My Grandfather's Son" won't convert any of Thomas' enemies into friends, but he really isn't courting them. He frequently refers to northern liberals as "water moccasins" who quietly sneak close and then strike without warning, then he proceeds to poke them with sticks. He recalls thinking about "cynical politicians" who "sucker voters, claiming to care about the poor while actually exploiting them." He says he supported Reagan in 1980 because "I thought that blacks would be better off if they were left alone instead of being used as guinea pigs for the foolish schemes of dream-killing politicians and their ideological acolytes."

When nominated to the court, his "refusal to swallow the liberal pieties that had done so much damage to blacks meant that I had to be destroyed." And perhaps most extraordinary of all:

"I'd grown up fearing the lynch mobs of the Ku Klux Klan; as an adult, I was starting to wonder if I'd been afraid of the wrong white people all along. My worst fears had come to pass not in Georgia but in Washington, D.C., where I was being pursued not by bigots in white robes but by left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony."

Granted, all these statements refer to how he felt in the past — but he doesn't ever say he changed his mind, and he still seems pretty angry. Maybe he has a right to be, but as much as one might sympathize, anger is dangerous for a judge, especially when it is directed at politicians who write laws he is called upon to interpret.

When Thomas isn't tossing hand grenades at his enemies, he is trying to inspire others with the story of his extraordinary life. These are the most interesting and compelling parts of the book. He is the prodigal son, a sinner who once was lost but finds his way home. The story wouldn't be very inspiring if Thomas' life had proceeded smoothly from start to finish, and Thomas makes it clear that his has not. He tells us about drinking too much, not paying his bills on time, leaving his wife. But thanks to the lessons imparted to him by his grandfather, he perseveres despite hardship.

Monica Dolin is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a consultant to ABC News.

He was born in the tiny community of Pinpoint, Ga., surrounded by relatives who made a living catching crabs and shucking oysters. His father abandoned Thomas' mother, Leola, and their three young children when Thomas was 3. The family moved in with another relative until a fire left them all homeless. Leola then left her only daughter, Emma Mae, with relatives in Pinpoint and brought 6-year-old Clarence and his younger brother Myers with her to nearby Savannah, where she found work as a domestic employee.

Less than a year later, Thomas' mother packed the boys' clothes in grocery bags and brought them 2½ blocks down the street to live with her father, Myers Anderson, and his wife, Christine, also known as Aunt Tina. Anderson — the grandfather alluded to in the book's title — was a strong, stern, proud man whom Thomas describes as "the greatest man I have ever known."

With less than a third-grade education, Anderson started a number of businesses — delivering fuel, building and leasing a couple of houses, making cinder blocks, farming — and worked them tirelessly to provide his family with a standard of living that included such unthinkable luxuries as indoor toilets, a washing machine and beds for everyone in the house. He was very far from rich, but for a black man in Jim Crow-era Georgia, he did all right.

Anderson needed help from his wife and grandsons to run his businesses, a lot of help. The greatest man Thomas has ever known was certainly not the gentlest, even in Thomas' own admiring account. He bought a truck to deliver fuel oil, then promptly removed its heater because he feared that the warmth "might make us lazy." He brought them out to a farm every summer beginning when Thomas was 10 and put them to work from sunup to sundown. No glove-wearing was allowed on the truck or the farm— "Daddy," as Thomas calls him, viewed them as "a sign of weakness." Thomas once complained that "slavery was over." His grandfather replied: "Not in my house."

Years later, when Thomas left seminary, Anderson simply threw him out of the house.

Nonetheless, Anderson appears to have been a devoted father to Thomas and his brother, and Thomas' description of his life with Anderson is vivid and moving:

"The family farm and our unheated oil truck became my most important classrooms, the schools in which Daddy passed on the wisdom he had acquired in the course of a long life as an ill-educated, modestly successful black man in the Deep South. Despite the hardships he had faced, there was no bitterness or self-pity in his heart. As for bad luck, he didn't believe in it. Instead he put his faith in his own unaided effort — the one factor in life that he could control — and he taught Myers and me to do the same. Unable to do anything about the racial bigotry and lack of education that had narrowed his own horizons, he put his hope for the future in "my two boys," as he always called us. "I am going to send you boys to school and teach you how to work so you can have a better chance than I did," he said. We were his second chance to live, to take part in America's opportunities, and he was willing to sacrifice his own comfort so that they would be fully open to us."

At 16, Thomas decided that he wanted to become a Catholic priest, and he took the remarkable step of enrolling in a boarding-school seminary that had never before had a black student. It wasn't easy, and anyone misguided enough to think Thomas has not really led a "black" life on account of his current politics ought to read the chapters about his experiences in newly desegregated schools.

Being the first black student meant that his success or failure affected more than just himself. "Don't shame me, and don't shame our race," admonished his grandfather, who made him promise not to quit. Competing with whites who doubted his abilities, Thomas bore the burden of representing his race in "a constant state of controlled anxiety."

Thomas worked hard and earned mostly A's at St. John while he endured racial hazing and the disappointing realization that his white friends would not necessarily defend him in such encounters. Thomas then attended a college-level seminary for a year before deciding that he did not want to become a priest after all. He says he had grown disillusioned with the church for not doing enough to combat racism. Soon after Martin Luther King's assassination in April 1968, he resolved to leave the seminary at term's end.

Monica Dolin is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a consultant to ABC News.

Next he had to face the "dreaded task" of telling his grandfather, who heard the news and thundered, "You've let me down." Thomas says he "knew exactly what our shared dream had meant to him. It justified the sacrifices he'd made and the bigotry he'd endured as he struggled with the daunting obligation of raising Myers and me. Now the dream was a heap of ashes. I had broken my promise, and my failure to live up to my word became a burden on my conscience that I have never escaped."

That he broke this promise is a point Thomas returns to again and again.

Kicked out of the house by his furious grandfather, Thomas enrolled at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., as a sophomore transfer student to the Class of 1971. There weren't many blacks in the Class of 1971, but they were an impressive bunch that included Ted Wells, the criminal-defense lawyer who represented Scooter Libby, and Edward P. Jones, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for "The Known World."

They were the "strivers" of their day, and they were among the first to benefit from open admission to previously all-white schools. But as stepped-up efforts to recruit black students increased their numbers on campus, Thomas saw more black students who ultimately failed to thrive there, or even to graduate.

Graduating near the top of his college class, Thomas married his college sweetheart, Kathy Ambush, and moved to New Haven, Conn., to begin law school at Yale. It was at Yale that he began to see another hazard of recruiting black students: It provided a handy excuse for white doubts about black abilities and achievements: "You just went there because you're black."

Thomas says that racial preferences have been used throughout his career to discount his achievements and dismiss his views. He has been called a hypocrite for objecting to racial preferences while benefiting from them, but when he has denied wanting or needing them, the burden of proof has fallen upon him to show he was as qualified as any hypothetical white applicant. What white person has ever been called upon so often and so insistently to defend each line of his or her resume?

Thomas' criticism of racial preferences goes a little too far, however, when he blames them exclusively for his failure to obtain an offer from a big law firm prior to his law-school graduation. Thomas asserts that law-firm recruiters simply dismissed his achievements and assumed he'd been given breaks on account of his race. Surely, there are other possible reasons he failed to land a job: plain old-fashioned racism, perhaps, or whether he acted like someone who actually wanted to work in a large corporate law firm, etc.

Thomas instead found work as a lawyer in the office of Missouri Attorney General John Danforth, who became a mentor to Thomas. The job offered little pay or prestige, but it gave him more responsibility and independence than he would have found at a law firm, and he thrived there.

Outside of work, though, his life was in some turmoil. He faced unspecified trouble at home with his wife, Kathy, and their young son, Jamal. Chronically broke, Thomas was forced to borrow money when a bank foreclosed on one of his student loans. He also began going out at night regularly for drinks with his colleagues.

After a few years in the attorney general's office and a few more in the legal department of Monsanto, Thomas moved his family to Washington so that he could work for Danforth, then the newly elected junior senator from Missouri. Thomas says he brought his growing problems — marital, financial and drinking — with him.

Although he focused on environmental issues in Danforth's office, he drew favorable attention from the incoming Reagan administration for making skeptical comments about welfare at a conference of black Republicans. He was appointed in 1981 to head the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education and promoted one year later to head the EEOC. In both of these jobs, he employed a recent Yale Law School graduate from Oklahoma — Hill.

For reasons left unstated, Thomas separated from his wife in 1981. After a stint in the spare bedroom of a friend, he moved into an efficiency apartment, bringing nothing from his marital home but "a stereo, a damaged table, a chair, and an old mattress." He was so thoroughly broke that he often chose between a Burger King dinner and a bus ride home: "If I ate, I walked; if I rode the bus, I went hungry."

Monica Dolin is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a consultant to ABC News.

Thomas' financial problems grew worse. While heading the EEOC, he tells us, he could not afford a car (luckily for him, the job came with a car and driver) and he had to take out a high-interest consumer loan to pay an overdue bill from American Express (which promptly struck him from its customer rolls anyway). He came close to eviction several times for not paying his rent. And while traveling to Holy Cross for a Board of Trustees meeting, he tried to pay for a Budget rental car with "an old Sears credit card," only to have someone on the phone from Sears customer service demand that the rental-car clerk cut it up on the spot. Even allowing for student loans and a son to support, his financial straits seem a little dire for a lawyer near the top of the government's pay scale, but Thomas doesn't really explain how he got so far in the hole in the first place.

As Thomas grew lonelier and more despairing, he drank more. One night in a snowstorm, he says, he decided to drive down to Savannah to visit his grandparents. I "grabbed a six-pack from the refrigerator" and "headed south, drinking beer and watching other cars slide off the road and crash into one another." Some time in 1982 or 1983, he concluded that alcohol had become a problem he could not afford, whereupon he downed the two cans of Busch in his refrigerator and quit cold turkey. He says he hasn't had a drink since.

In 1983, both his grandparents died, leaving him in a state of deep grief and depression that lasted months. "I sometimes wonder how I got through the summer of 1983 without falling apart. As we say in Georgia, I was lower than a snake's belly. I told [my secretary] Diane Holt that if I so much as tripped and fell I didn't think I had it in me to stand up again. I meant it: I'd actually reached the point where I wondered whether there was any reason for me to go on. The mad thought of taking my own life fleetingly crossed my mind."

Thomas' life has been chronicled by others, some less and some more sympathetic to Thomas than Thomas himself. Curiously, not one of them alludes to any difficulties with alcohol or money, nor do the stories told by people who know Thomas, such as Sen. John Danforth in 1994's "Resurrection" and Hill herself, whose "Speaking Truth to Power" was published 10 years ago. Did all of Thomas' previous biographers miss something important, or were his problems not really that significant? The answers are far from clear.

Thomas sometimes displays a touch of self-pity that is strangely at odds with his grandfather's legacy of stoicism and self-reliance. His anguish is enormously compelling elsewhere, though, especially when he describes his experiences as a child and a young man. "My Grandfather's Son" is angry, moving, outrageous, sympathetic and shocking — as much a study in contradictions and complexity as is Thomas himself.

Monica Dolin is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a consultant to ABC News.