Preceding Justice Clarence Thomas's public appearance at Regent University, the students of the School of Government were given a rare opportunity to listen in on a conversation with his longtime friend, Dean Kay Coles James. The school's moot courtroom -- typically foreboding -- looked almost homey; transformed by two buttercream yellow highback chairs, a coffee table and fresh flowers set between them.
Before talking about his work as a civil servant, Justice Thomas, looking dapper in his navy gab blazer, starched blue oxford button-down and nautical tie, bantered back and forth with Dean James about their ongoing rivalry between the Redskins and the Cowboys. Old friends sharing memories. Most pleasing and surprising was the deep bass of the Justice's laugh, bellowing out across the auditorium and completely filling the large and stately room.
Justice Thomas offered encouragement and support -- not just a scholarly presentation -- and gave us insight into the content of his character. Following are excerpts from the conversation.
[Kay James] Who were the anchors in your life?
[Justice Clarence Thomas] I think we all have that somebody that comes along that makes a difference ... My grandparents knew, very clearly it seemed, from the time my brother and I went to live with them in 1955, what the plan was. And it was very simple. You go to school everyday, we would obey them, we would obey the teachers, and we would work during the summers, and we would never have idle moments. They believed that an idle mind was the devil's workshop. And I always wondered what he was working on.
My grandfather believed that you put one foot in front of the other and of course ... I would be remiss if I didn't say that those were not the most enchanting times. Although he was in the NAACP and worked to change things, it didn't seem to intrude upon his approach to raising us kids. And that, ultimately, he said, "we're going to teach you how to work and we're going to teach you to have, as he would say, 'how to be mannerable'" and he meant that. And if he told you something, you could take it to the bank. He would not tell us, "well you do as I say, but not as I do." He thought that was hypocrisy.
[James] What's a nice person like you doing being a conservative? How did that happen? You, like I, started out to the left.
[Thomas] I was truly on the left.
[James] How far left were you?
[Thomas] Well, there was no body on the other side of me. Let's just put it this way. I thought George McGovern was a conservative.
[James] So, What happened?
[Thomas] It really was a "Road to Damascus" experience. It was actually rather interesting. First let me define where I am. I really don't refer to myself particularly as a conservative. I was defined as that to be dismissed. If you were a black conservative, you didn't have to be paid any attention; and that started after an article that appeared in the Washington Post on December 16, 1980. It was not because we defined ourselves as such.
What I do think my views and my attitude reflect are the things I was taught as a kid. I am almost indistinguishable, according to my family, from my grandfather, as far as my attitudes. I don't see where there's that big of a difference. Not that much has changed. The things you see in me are certainly a reflection; I'm becoming more like him, or became more like him after my rebellious stage. My views toward work and toward the world, toward study, toward religion, are all things that reflect the way I was raised.
[James] I didn't know I was a conservative until a newspaper reporter told me I was. I just thought I believed the stuff my mother taught me.
[Thomas] Well I didn't know I was poor until I got to New England. We thought that we did quite well. Then I was told that we were poor. And, sure, in comparison, some people had more; but I certainly can not think of a better life; of a more stable life than the one I had as a child. It wasn't perfect but it was stable and safe.
[James] What happened with those rebellious years when you sort of rejected . . .
[Thomas] I grew up, I had a wife and child ... to support; I had a job to do, I had taxes to pay, and I just suddenly grew up -- it probably started in earnest in late college years and law school. It was a wonderful advantage to be able to read and write and think.
[James] So you went to law school at Yale ...
[Thomas] Well, don't spread that around ... that's not a resume highlight for me.
[James] Was that some affirmative action program that got you in there?
[Thomas] Well, whatever it was, it's just not a resume highlight.
[James] How do you feel about that? People say that, you know, affirmative action, and I think I know how you feel about that. Is there anything you would like to share?
[Thomas] Not really (laughter) ... I'm beyond the point. . . those little jabs are irrelevant. They weren't there.
I always wonder how people who weren't there can take credit for things that you do. I laugh, to be quite honest with you about most of that ... and I'm beyond that point where I can be insulted by those sorts of things. It hurts so much because there is a real story to tell and we do it with our own kids. We tell them how they can do things for themselves and help them to benefit over long periods. We tell them about good behavior; we tell them about our Christian values and we tell them about our traditions; we tell them to study and to work hard. Why do we tell them? Because we think that those are the right things to do and it will benefit them.
When you tell kids, "it's not what they do that matters, but what someone else does; what I do or what some governmental programs do," I think you're taking away the responsibility they should have for themselves and, in fact, you're dis-empowering them. On the other side, you're doing something else. When they do achieve, you're saying to them, "well you achieved, not because you did all the right things -- you played fair, you worked hard, you studied hard, you put in the extra effort," you're saying to them, "you succeeded because I did something for you. The benefits of your success fell to me."
Everybody in this room could be someplace else today. And the people who do good things with themselves could be doing bad things. I think it's within people's capacity to make these decisions and to do well. It's incredible to me that we sit still and let it be said about one or two groups in our society, that only some powerful policy maker can determine the outcome of your lives. Only one or two groupings in our society -- it is simply not true. It's not true and I underscore that by saying that I was never the best black student when I was in segregated schools -- ever.
I was never among the brightest. So it's been clear to me since those days, that these kids are bright, they are capable. And for the life of me, why don't we tell them the same thing we tell all the other kids in our society -- unless we think that they're from Mars or they're different; some kind of degenerate. To say the latter is highly offensive.
Getting A Government Job
[James] After Yale, then what?
[Thomas] The best thing that happened to me was that I couldn't get a job out of Yale. . . it was good because ... as some doors close, other doors open ... .I wanted to go to Atlanta; I wanted to go to Savannah at one point, but that didn't work out. I wanted to go to Washington, D.C., and quite frankly, couldn't get a job. A young Attorney General came along and said, "join me in Jefferson City, Missouri." I said, "where?" And it was not much pay and I had family obligations and a lot of student loans. And I went out to Jefferson City, Missouri.
What was very difficult financially, turned out to be the most magnificent job because there was so much work, and the people's attitudes were so straightforward and honest that there was no way I could be discriminated against in. On September 14 ... I was sworn in as a member of the Missouri bar, and on September 17, I stood before the Missouri Supreme Court for my first argument. In essence, [I was] on your own ... I was absolutely scared beyond belief.
The job turned out to be with Senator Danforth, then Attorney General Danforth. [He] turned out to be one of the most honest and decent human beings ever -- just a wonderful man. There was no sensitivity training ... the sensitivity training was "you do your share of the work." It turned out to be a perfect job and of course, I would rejoin Senator Danforth in 1979.
[James] I have often said, "we should all work for something or someone that we have a great respect or admiration for." And I know that the relationship that existed and still exists today between you and Senator Danforth is very special. Now I think it's very important to share with the government students ... that you were committed to him and to working for him and to his success. And then what happened?
[Thomas] I think its interesting that he recruited me. First he said he was not going to say that he knew what it meant to be black, without money, from the south. He didn't have any of those problems. He was one of the heirs of the Danforth fortune -- the Ralston-Purina fortune -- and had a wonderful life.
The second thing he said was, "Clarence, there's plenty of room at the top." Of course, then I was still cynical and negative ... I said, "that's easy for him to say." And it turns out that less than 20 years later ... in October, 1991, sitting on the Supreme Court, you realize beyond belief, that he was absolutely right. At the time you didn't think so.
Now to your point. I made a decision when I was in the early part of my career not to ever work for money ... I would never take a job for money; never switch jobs for money ... So often we think, "I can make 15 or 20% more if I move over here." But that would mean either that I wasn't working for something that was meaningful to me, or if I was working for someone meaningful, that it was for sale. There was a price tag on it. And I've kept true to that. I will not work for people I can not look up to. I would rather starve than do that.
One favorite saying is, "You don't criticize the person who is putting food on your plate." And if I was going to work for someone about whom I was going to be critical, then I would prefer simply to leave. The positive side is that if you really fell strongly about someone, you really put in the extra effort.
[James] You were a Senate staffer ... and you shared an office, for very little money. Worked long hours. Why?
[Thomas] It was a great job ... There wasn't much money involved, but we had a heck of a time. The great thing about that job was that you were not the principal, but you got to see the principal and you got to work with all the issues. There was just so much to get involved with.
[James] And it was twelve years from that to the Supreme Court! Did everybody hear that? Twelve years from sharing a Senate office with four people, working hard, very little money.
[Thomas] I can't say I was on a career path, I was just there.
To Be A Leader, Be A Reader
[James] How did you go from a McGovern liberal to ...
[Thomas] I was never a liberal.
[James] What were you?
[Thomas] I was a radical.
[James] You were radical, o.k. How did you go from being a radical -- in terms of your ideology and your philosophy? What did you read, who did you talk to? How did you develop your thinking?
[Thomas] I read all the German philosophers; a lot of us were into relativism, nihilism, existentialism ... but then when I got to the Attorney General's office ... I started to read more economics and Tom Sowell was actually the one; when I read Race and Economics, it really moved me back to an approach that was consistent with my own predisposition and my own background. And over the years then I read others ... Hayek, Paul Johnson, there's a whole range of people. I've been through the Ayn Rand period.
The people who think intrigue me ... My wife and I were recently in England ... we spent an hour with Maggie, Lady Thatcher, and the thing that I found intriguing about it was how well read she is. And the thing that I find intriguing about so many people in leadership positions is how they think; they read serious people and they think about things. She was pulling books off her book shelf that were underlined; highlighted and thought through.
Reading is critical if you're serious. The one thing ... that I'm irritated with is people who don't want to do the heavy lifting, but they want the results. [They think] let somebody else do the heavy lifting.
On the Nature of the Court
[Thomas] It is an incredible place and the people treat it that way. There is no yelling or screaming. It is treated as dignified and honorable; everything right up to the ... the feeling you get when going to the court every day. Its not that you belong, but you're honored to be there. And not a single member of the court I've met since I've been there -- retired or acting -- would intentionally do anything to dishonor the institution or the Constitution. I think its for that reason that we're able to keep a civil environment ... even when we vehemently disagree. And having been in the dissent more times that I can count ... the point is ... people respect each other ... the way they feel about the Constitution and the country [enables us] to remain civil and respect each other.
The Secret To His Success
[Thomas] I used to carry this quote from Bobby Knight [around in my wallet]. [While] coaching the U.S. Olympic basketball team he [was] asked, "does your team have the will to win?" And he said, "every team has a will to win. The question is, do you have the will to prepare?" I carry that around because having the will to prepare is a difficult, difficult thing to hold on to when you don't know what the outcome is going to be.
You prepare for a marathon and you don't know whether you're ever going to run it. You prepare for life and you don't know how long you're going to live. You prepare for a job and you don't know if you'll ever get it. It's very, very difficult to prepare, day-in and day- out.
Ask yourself, "Do I have the will to pull the all-nighters, to sacrifice the money, to not go on vacation, to work an extra job, to not take my Saturday's off, to pull double-shifts ... do I have the will to do all those things, to be good at something?" And until you can make that commitment, I don't think you can expect the kind of success you see some people having ... .I would say to you, "have your principles, be willing to prepare for every job and every page you read, just ask yourself, am I doing this in a way that is ... going to help me be a part of the solution to the problems in our society?"
Stop Whining and Just Do It
[Thomas] I don't know if you watch any of the programs on TV ... its just whine, whine, whine, whine, whine ... I'm sick of it ... just get up and do something about it. Everybody's whining. I used to love being around my grandparents -- they never complained. If the house burned down, [grandpa would] wait until the coals were cool enough and he'd mark off another house. It was like ants ... You kick over their ant hill, they scurry around for about five minutes. You come back a couple of hours later, they're working on another ant hill. That's the way my grandparents were. Today, we're just professional complainers.
I don't know if you have friends like that. You say, "Good morning, isn't it a great day?" "Ohhhh, the sun's too bright."
The next day, "Oh man, isn't great to have a little rain, it's great for the grass?!" "Oh, gosh, it's really wet out here today."
You know, it's always something wrong; whine, whine, whine. Just stop it. Just do something about it. Just don't be apart of that whining.
You're here. You're in school. You've got an opportunity. It's great. Take full advantage of it. Use it up. And go out here in this country and be a part of the solution. If you think there's something wrong, you go and correct it. Don't wait on the other guy while you're up laying your hammock. You go and correct it.
Look, it's your problem, it's your country, it's your life. Do something about it. Don't wait on the other guy. Your being in school, and taking full advantage of it, and learning is part of that preparation. That's all I can tell you. Where it will lead you -- only God knows. And He could well lead you to the Presidency, or it could lead you back home to start a school. You don't know. But that's part of the adventure.
Words aptly spoken by a man who did something about it and embarked on an incredible adventure. The event ended with a hymn sung by a Regent Law grad. The song may be a key to understanding Thomas's source of strength: "I am determined, to be invincible, till He has finished his purpose in me. And nothing shall shake me for he'll never forsake me. I am determined, to live for the King." The Justice could be seen mouthing silently, "I am determined, to live for the King."
Following the casual conversation with the School of Government, the Editors of NP met with Justice Thomas to ask him about the future, cultivating leadership, and the challenges facing Generation X.
[NP] Are things different for today's kids than when you were growing up? What challenges do we face that you didn't?
[Justice Thomas] I am convinced... if you could just go back to the neighborhood that I grew up in and compare it -- just the physical facilities, just the house and street -- to what it was when I was there -- the exact same place...that's the only conclusion that I can arrive at. When I was there you could ride your bike up and down the street.
You know, when you go out in the woods you can hear the sounds of life, the birds and leaves rustling in the wind. And if it was still, actually still -- you went there and you heard no birds, you saw nothing moving -- you would say something weird is going on.
Well in my neighborhood now, you don't have those sounds of life. You have occasional gun shots. You have the sirens. You have the drug dealers out there. Where kids were playing, you have people standing around supplying their trade in illicit goods. When I went back in 1993, to visit my mother after I got on the court, they -- for security purposes -- at the house I grew up in, where my mother now resides, my grandparents lived there -- they took a mobile police substation and pulled it behind house. What does that tell you, if I grew up in that neighborhood? No Catholic schools there now. No nuns teaching the inner city black kids. No respect for elders who could tell you what to do and keep you out of trouble. No security to walk down the street and go to the library, or walk to school everyday. How else would I grow up? And no grandparents.
[NP] What hopes and fears do you have about the future?
[Justice Thomas] I'm one of those who thinks we're in big trouble. And I'll tell you why. I'll start with very simple things. Start with something as simple as manners. When I was part of the younger generation, when you saw an adult, it was always "yes sir," "no sir." You had to be polite and get out of the way and all sorts of things of deference. Well that's gone.
There's this notion [among Xers] that somebody owes them something. You know, an education...I was at the Price Club...and I saw this woman, and she looked tired. The place had just opened and she said...this was her second job. She worked on the weekends, Saturday and Sunday, and she said that her son was off in college but that he was down in Mexico right at that moment on spring break. But he had earned the money to go to Mexico and he needed a break because he was tired and I said, "what's wrong with this picture?" You know, there is no way that I would go to Mexico if my mother was standing up ringing out at a cash register at Price Club on Saturday. Now that doesn't really capture the whole generation, but there are trends...
[NP] What advice would you give to the leaders among Generation X who are ready to assume responsibility?
[Justice Thomas] I don't think it's a lost generation, but I think that they're going to have some challenges that we didn't have. I think they're going to live long enough to regret that my generation was in authority.
We're going to hand off a mess to you. Hey, we're the ones, in my generation. [We] have given [you] a lot of rough things to deal with I'm not particularly proud of.
I don't know what to tell you. I think that those of you who still care, you're almost going to have to decide to commit your lives to do something about it and not be frustrated by the lack of change.
I used to go across this country.... I have had an audience of fourteen or fifteen people and I went to my home town of Savannah in the mid-80s and there were only two people in the audience, and one of them was a relative. But times change. And if you do things for the right reasons, you really don't worry about the fact that there are only two people in the audience; you speak as though there are 2,000 and you care as if there are 2,000.
I think it's not going to be so much that you're going to find all the answers, "Oh, I have all the answers for the next generation." It's going to be how you respond to your turn to lead, and you know what those problems are and you are closer to your generation -- and to Generation X -- and to the generation after. Your turn to lead is going to be pretty soon.
Monday, September 24, 2007
This is from a Regent University magazine that seems to be defunct (at least the website has disappeared). Luckily, I had copied the entire two-part interview with Justice Clarence Thomas: