Clarence Thomas offers a glimpse of his thoughts
He regrets the controversy over his confirmation hearings.
By Chris Mondics
Inquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Even now, after nearly a dozen years on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas still has a rebellious streak and a will to speak his mind.
In a rare and wide-ranging interview, Thomas likened African Americans' overwhelming support for the Democratic Party to the old era of segregation in the South.
"I remember when I was down in Georgia [as a youth], people were very comfortable with the idea that we should be in certain parts of town, and now we have become very comfortable with the view that we should only be thinking certain things," he said.
But Thomas maintains that political change, if it occurs, will come at a price.
"There would be many, many more [black Republicans] if the price weren't so high," Thomas said, discussing the isolation that some black conservatives feel in the face of overwhelming black support for the Democratic Party. "The price right now is that so many people are quick to criticize.
"One day someone is going to look back and say, 'What were these people doing?' I don't understand why it is so acceptable that there is some lockstep approach to these things."
Ever since his bruising and still-controversial Senate confirmation hearings in 1991, Thomas has been a mostly silent figure on the bench, communicating his thoughts through opinions and occasional speeches.
His interview with The Inquirer was for a profile of his old friend Larry D. Thompson, the U.S. deputy attorney general and himself an African American conservative. But the conversation covered a number of other subjects as well.
He struck a poignant note when he hinted that, despite having reached a professional pinnacle with his appointment to the Supreme Court, he might never be a role model for young people because of the controversy of his confirmation hearings. In those hearings, a former aide, Anita Hill, accused him of sexual harassment, although the charges were never proved.
"They may have pounded me too much," Thomas said.
Black conservatives have long been at odds with African American leaders because of the conservatives' allegiance to the Republican Party, which many black people view with suspicion. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, says that is because many African Americans see the Republican Party and conservative causes as hostile to policies - affecting taxes, health care and other issues - that would benefit them.
"He [Thomas] has to understand why there is this criticism" of black Republicans and conservatives, Cummings said. "What Republicans do over and over again is cut away at the rights of middle-class people, many of them African American people. If the Republican Party truly was about opening its doors to the masses of African American people, not just a few," then the party might have more acceptance among black voters.
Thomas insisted in the interview that criticism had not fazed him. If anything, the political hurly-burly that surrounds his right-of-center ideas seems to have strengthened his conviction that he's on the correct course.
Thomas quickly established himself as one of the court's most conservative members after taking office on Oct. 23, 1991. But far from becoming a mere acolyte of the forceful and persuasive Antonin Scalia, the court's leading conservative, Thomas has found his own style, interpreting legal issues through the lens of historical research and the writings of the drafters of the Constitution.
"Justice Thomas' career on the bench is sort of like the trajectory of President Bush," said David J. Garrow, a professor at Emory University Law School. "You may not agree with them, but you have to acknowledge that they are doing a whole lot better job than was predicted when they took office."
Added Garrow, Thomas "is not someone following Scalia like a pet poodle."
In the interview, Thomas steered clear of legal questions and cases before the court, sticking to political and philosophical themes.
When asked whether the intense criticism of his legal views by liberal activists was disturbing to him, Thomas quickly replied: "Not for me it isn't; I really don't care."
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Thomas spent the early part of his career as a political independent in Missouri, where he worked for a time with John Ashcroft, when both were lawyers in the state Attorney General's Office. It was in Missouri that he became friendly with Thompson, when the two worked together on the legal staff at Monsanto Co., and with Alfonso Jackson, now deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In 1980, Thomas and Thompson attended a conference in San Francisco that was to become a central event in their lives and those of many other black conservatives. Organized by Thomas Sowell, a leading black conservative thinker, dozens of African Americans with backgrounds in the law, government and higher education met to share strategies for promoting black advancement with a conservative spin. Participants in the Fairmont Conference, as it came to be known, roundly criticized school busing, welfare and the minimum wage.
Today, Thomas bristles at the idea, advanced by some, that black conservatives are opportunists, throwing in their lot with Republicans for the prospect of quick career advancement.
Life as a black conservative, he suggested, can be too painful to make such a calculating approach worthwhile.
"What does it mean to sell out?" Thomas asked. "It was difficult for me to go to work for a Republican [in the Missouri Attorney General's Office]. I was born and raised a Democrat, but to go and do it and be in the Attorney General's Office, that meant [to some people] keeping blacks in jail."
Throughout, he contended that the pressure he feels to conform will never change his views.
"If the price to be treated better is to be dishonest, that is a Faustian bargain to me," he said.