My Dinner With Clarence Thomas
Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court Justice, is a born story-teller.
At a small dinner organized by Rebecca Hagelin and Thomas' wife, Virginia Lamp Thomas, in a wood-paneled room at the Heritage Foundation, the judge relaxed among friends, telling stories and laughing deeply when someone else delivered a punch line.
Around Thomas were friends, old and new. National Review's Kate O'Beirne and Weekly Standards' Bill Kristol have known Thomas for years. Among Thomas' new friends were the best in bloggerdom: James Joyner, Tim Graham, James Taranto, Mary Katharine Ham, Sasha Volokh, LaShawn Barber, Erick Erickson, Paul Mirengoff , and Robery Bluey.
Before I get to the stories, here is the one-liner that will probably be all over the Internet tomorrow. Thomas was talking about how surprisingly positively he has been received in campuses around the country over the past two decades. It is mostly the faculty, not the students or the public that are tough on him. Of course, there are some law schools he does not expect an invitation from. "About the only way I would get invited to Columbia is if I was a Middle East dictator with nuclear weapons."
But it is his personal stories, some of which appear in his new book My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir that should force even his harshest critic to rethink their views. It is a tough and honest book and will draw you in.
When he said he enjoyed traveling across country in an RV-style bus, I asked him if he ever gets recognized by truckers.
"The short answer is rarely." Then he proceeded to tell some stories.
While driving his massive bus (and towing a Corvette behind), he stopped at a Flying J truck stop in Georgia. An intense black truck driver approached him. "Is there anyone famous on that bus?"
"No, it is just me."
Oh, he said and walked off. A few minutes later, the man came back. "Are you sure that there isn't anybody famous on that bus?"
"No, only me."
Not taking the hint, the man insisted that Thomas take his card and give it to his famous passenger.
The Justice nonchalantly pocketed his card.
At another truck stop, a teamster approached him. "Did anyone ever tell you look a lot like Clarence Thomas?"
Thomas wasn't sure what to say.
"You must get that a lot, huh?" he said, walking away.
Some of the stories were revealing. At a gathering of black lawyers, Thomas, from the podium, could see a man in the front row, with his arms crossed and his face cross. Naturally, he shot his hand up as soon as the question session began. A long speech in lieu of a question followed, essentially asking how he can interpret the law by relying so heavily on the Founding Fathers when they did not recognize the rights of blacks?
"The 13th amendment," Thomas said, citing the constitutional amendment that freed the slaves and provided for their equal rights under law.
Thomas went on to take other questions.
At the end of session, the man again raised his hand. In the course of an hour, his view on Thomas had changed. "They lied about you. What are we going to do?"
Thomas said that others have approached him at events, saying that their views about him had changed just by meeting him.
In fact, Thomas said pointedly, he has been treated graciously everywhere he went. In the black community, most of all.
It is only among Washington partisans and professors that he creates any controversy at all, he said.
He proudly said that we would not meet with the Supreme Court press corps to promote his book. He explained by garbling a line from Mark Twain (which he misattributed to Jefferson): It is like teaching a pig to sing. Pigs can't sing. You only make a fool of yourself and annoy the pig.
Other justices, especially Kennedy, crave the worshipful attention of the New York Times and other elite media.
Bill Kristol, editor the Weekly Standard magazine, asked Thomas if there was any way he would consider running for president in 2012?
Thomas laughed and said no.
If he could have any other job, what would he want to do? He said that he would like to own "a small or medium sized business" somewhere in the south and "be a part of my community."
I believed him. He likes his Corvette and his bus and being out in the country and gets a charge out of meeting university football players. "You know, when they first meet you, there is this gap," he says, but it quickly dissipates when he chides them about last week's game. "Then you are really talking, about grades and life..."
I couldn't help but think that Thomas is a 19th century American in some ways, a Cincinnatus who is happy to return to the plow. There aren't many like him in public life anymore. Our Leviathan state attracts men who like power and crave the approval of other authorities.
Thomas clearly couldn't care less.
"I am the freest man on the court," he declares.
He also took issue with the press myth that the members of the court do not get along. In fact, they get along better than ever, thanks to the initiative of Sandra Day O'Connor. When Thomas joined the court, justices lunched alone or with their clerks. Under the constant prodding of O'Connor-here he did a dead-on imitation of her voice: "Now, Clarence, you know you have to come to this lunch"-the judges began to eat together and talk to each other more. All eight of the other justices will be attending a book event for Thomas' new book on Wednesday, a unprecedented event.
Another thing that bothers him about the court is its fixation on Ivy League pedigrees. He told a story about a woman working her way through American University law school at night. Somehow, she became an intern at the court and asked him for advice. Later, when she was in desperate straits, she applied for a secretarial job at the court. Thomas backed her, but made her promise to finish law school in four years. She did. She went on to clerk for two other federal judges. When she applied to clerk for him, he accepted her. Immediately, court watchers said she was "unqualified."
Thomas shot his eyebrows up. He is clearly mad at the memory. "Unqualified? They had not seen her work. It was only because she was not a member of their [Ivy League] club."
The fact that she went to law school at night must really have irked them.
He went on to talk about that over-emphasis on Ivy League degrees. Though he does hire his share of clerks from the elite law schools, he is happy to look outside it. What matters more, he said, is receiving a recommendation from someone he knows and respects.
Five or six years after he arrived on the court, Thomas had lunch with C. Boyden Gray, Bush's judge-picker, at the University Club. (Back in the 1990s, I would sometimes see him in the club's well-appointed locker room, watching football or laughing at one of Judge David Sentelle's hilarious animal-rights jokes.)
Thomas asked him if he (Thomas) was really the most qualified person for the opening at the Supreme Court. The idea that he might have been nominated because of his race gnawed at him. (Pause for a moment and listen to the pain in his question.)
"Yes," said Gray.
"Well," Gray explained. "No one asked what the criteria was." The president wanted someone who would not bend in office to suit the sirens at the New York Times. Thomas had endured more than 30 hostile hearings when he was chairman of the EEOC and he never backed down. He did what he thought was right and let the chips fall where they may.
Whatever your views on Clarence Thomas, isn't that the singular quality we want in a Supreme Court justice?