Monday, October 15, 2007

David Garrow Review

David Garrow, a liberal, has a fair-minded review of Justice Clarence Thomas's autobiography, including some harsh comments aimed at other reviewers:
Clarence Thomas’ brutally self-critical autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, bears little resemblance to most early accounts of the book’s contents.

For instance, only at Page 241 — well past the 80 percent mark in a 289-page book — does Thomas reach the subject of Anita Hill’s charges that threw his 1991 Senate confirmation hearings into turmoil. * * *

Yet My Grandfather’s Son is plenty newsworthy, even if initial reviews and commentaries have “missed the lede,” as journalists say when stories fail to highlight what’s most important. In fact, those accounts have missed multiple ledes.

Let’s start with one that’s not all that obvious. Thomas’ son, Jamal — who’s now a 34-year-old options trader for Wachovia Securities in Richmond, Va. — was born while the justice-to-be was a newly married second-year student at Yale Law School. Jamal figures in this memoir most prominently when Thomas describes the subsequent dissolution of that marriage, after which Jamal eventually lived full-time with his father. But Thomas also recounts that, soon after Jamal’s birth, TV news footage of black schoolchildren being bused into the vociferously hostile white neighborhood of South Boston led him to make a remarkable vow: “I swore on the spot never to let Jamal go to a public school.”

Thomas kept his pledge, though in later years his personal finances repeatedly left him scrambling to pay Jamal’s private school tuition bills.

Top public officials need not send their children to public school, but a personal aversion toward public education as intense and long-standing as Thomas’ — apparently irrespective of state, district, or particular school — is a noteworthy attitude for a jurist who regularly confronts cases that present a wide range of public schooling issues. * * *


The most dramatic “missed lede” from Thomas’ memoir is his insistently confessional accounts of a drinking problem that began during his undergraduate years at the College of the Holy Cross and lasted until 1982, when he gave up alcohol entirely.* * *

But this story is just one example of the intense, soul-bearing self-examination to which Thomas relentlessly subjects himself in this memoir. To call My Grandfather’s Son “emotionally revealing” would be the understatement of the year, and fatuous op-ed columnists who insistently declare that Thomas is just bitterly wallowing in self-pity have either failed to read this book or possess an undeclared bias that overwhelmed their critical faculties.


Any reader who comes to this book without a pre-existing animus toward Thomas will likely feel tremendous empathy for his life story, even if the reader’s legal views — like this reviewer’s — differ from Thomas’ on everything from abortion to the commerce clause to gay equality. * * *

* * *

Thomas’ performance as a justice has earned the respect of almost every unbiased Court observer. As liberal Supreme Court practitioner Thomas Goldstein recently wrote, Thomas’ “unflinchingly honest” opinions reveal how “he is thinking big and tackling the serious questions in constitutional law to which the Court has not given a fresh look in decades.” One need not agree with Thomas’ answers, or with his view of public education, to appreciate how My Grandfather’s Son will remain a classic work of African-American autobiography long after op-ed columnists’ catty comments are forgotten.

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