Kevin Merida is an associate editor at The Washington Post. He recently coordinated the acclaimed "Being A Black Man" series for the paper; he's covered cultural and politcal beats inside and outside The Beltway, including the First Gulf War and the Invasion of Panama. Michael Fletcher is on the front line as a Post White House correspondent. He was formerly the paper's national race relations correspondent and you may've seen Michael's talking head on BET's "Lead Story" and MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" on any given night.
These two gentlemen are the authors of the new & controversial biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas. They took the time to speak to me the day after a very successful roundtable discussion on the book at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here in the Nation's Capital moderated by USA Today reporter Joan Biskupic and legendary constitutional scholar/Supreme Court Professor Mark Tushnet. Brothers, welcome. First let me laud you on an amazing job laying open and analyzing such a closed life and complex personality. This book could not have come at a better time, as Justice Thomas, molded by the diverse and divergent forces in his life, is starting to have a critical influence on ALL of our lives: our pocketbooks, our environment, our health, our civil rights, our civil liberties--now that Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justice Alito have joined him on the Court.
So let me start with this--how did you both come to this project? Did your backgrounds with the Washington Post and the political beats you cover fuel your interest, and Clarence Thomas was always a person begging in-depth study—or were you encouraged to write this by editors and/or a political insider you cover?
We were both intrigued by the passion that is stirred by the mere mention of Clarence Thomas’s name. There are no soft opinions about him, particularly among African Americans. We were once at a going-away party for a black professional friend and Justice Thomas’s name was harmlessly invoked. Just like that, a raging debate was kindled, drawing people from across the room. That gave us the idea that Justice Thomas would be a great subject to explore in a deep way. Beyond the strong opinions about him, he arguably the most powerful African American in the country and someone who is likely to be a historic figure. And given our reporting backgrounds--we’ve both written extensively about race and politics--we thought we were well-positioned to do the book.
You interviewed many public figures and public officials—including former President George H.W. Bush —yet you describe your efforts to get a word with your subject as “an intricate chess game.” Can you describe your efforts to talk to the brother, why his denial may illuminate his personality? Do you think if, say, Ann Coulter, Bernard Goldberg or even Rush Limbaugh desired a print or an on-air word from him on any subject, Thomas would feel more comfortable complying?
We worked hard to try to get an interview with Justice Thomas. We talked to him on the sidelines of several speeches, hearings and conferences. We also wrote him six or seven letters. And while he was friendly and approachable, he never wavered from his position not to grant an interview. We think he is distrustful of the press. In one encounter, he told Kevin the exact date of an article that he found offensive. The remarkable thing was the piece had been written 20 years earlier and was a standard piece of journalism, hardly a hatchet job. We believe it illustrates how much he has been scarred by the confirmation process and the cascade of criticism he received in his early years on the court. It seems like Justice Thomas would be more comfortable with interviewers who were clear conservatives, as you suggest. But having said that, he grants to the occasional interview to mainstream reporters. Recently, he did an interview with Business Week, but only after the reporter had been recommended by a Thomas mentor from the College of the Holy Cross, which he attended as an undergraduate. But even in that interview , Thomas was critical of reporters, saying we often bring our own scripts to stories.
This dovetails nicely into my next question then--the theme of duality, ambivalence—the bizarre yin & yang of the man—permeates his story. Independent black man and willing pawn, all in one body, perhaps? Is this something you uncovered as you did your research, or did you have a hypothesis or a hunch, and went about proving it? Give us a few quick examples of defining moments in his personal life.
This is something that became apparent as we dug into his story. Thomas has had many defining moments in his life beginning with when his father left his family when he was two years old. At age six, his mother left him and his brother to be raised by her father, who reluctantly took the boys in. Thomas’s grandfather transformed his life, lifting him from poverty and sending him to Catholic schools. In high school, Thomas went to a minor seminary in hopes of becoming a priest. He began college at a seminary in Missouri but quit during his freshman year because of the racism of white seminarians. He transferred to the College of the Holy Cross, where he flirted with radicalism. From there he went to Yale Law School, where he began to question affirmative action because he saw it as unnecessary for most of his black classmates, who were solidly middle class and, he felt, elitist. From there, he was on to work for John Danforth, first as an assistant attorney general in Missouri and later on Capitol Hill when Danforth was a senator. From there, he rose through the ranks of the Reagan Administration to the high court in 12 short years. Of course, the most searing experience of all was his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, where Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. It seems that that event has framed the rest of his life.
So if you didn’t have agendas, what were your personal views of Thomas before undertaking the research? I don't mean the circus surrounding Anita Hill in 1991 or his jurisprudence, his relationship with Scalia, etc. But rather, as African American men, how did you feel about this brother? Some people say “Handkerchief Head A-Number 1?...pawn of the right and fool." Did your personal views evolve or merely amplify?
Most of all, we felt Thomas had been caricatured. We knew he had to be more complex than what we heard from either the left or the right. And that proved to be right. He is a tortured, conflicted, complex, high achieving, man who is by turns, stubborn, gracious, humble and arrogant. In short, he is fascinating--especially when you consider where he sits and his historical significance.
You use the case of Hudson v. McMillian as a paradigm of Thomas's judicial thought process (Keith Hudson was an African American convict suing the state of Louisiana under the 8th and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution)…why did you use that case? Why isn’t widely known that Thomas's beloved nephew is also in prison, like so many other young black men?
The case was one of Justice Thomas’s earliest and it helped set the mold for both how he is perceived and how he applies the law. Before his confirmation hearings, many civil rights leaders, knowing Thomas was conservative, nonetheless held out hope that he would moderate his views once he was on the court. They reasoned that his experience as a black man would not allow anything less. And Thomas played into that, saying at one point that he often looked out of his office window to watch the prisoners being loaded onto vans to take them to court.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” Thomas said, indicating that he would show empathy in his rulings for the dispossessed. But Thomas voted against Hudson (who nonetheless won his case charging cruel and unusual punishment). Not only did he vote against him, but he wrote a dissent arguing that while Hudson’s beating at the hands of prison guards was terrible, tortuous and wrong, it did not amount to a constitutional violation. Punishment, he said, had to do with penalties handed down by the courts, not beatings meted out by prison guards that resulted in “minor” injury. Many people, including other justices, where shocked that Thomas seemed to minimize the human dimension of the case. But Thomas dissent showed that he would be a strict “originalist” when it came to interpreting the Constitution--meaning he would read the Constitution only in the context of time in which is was written. That set the pattern for his later positions in favor of the death penalty, even for juveniles and the retarded, opposition to affirmative action and his suggestion that regulatory power enjoyed by the federal government on environmental, labor, civil rights and other matters should mostly reside with the states.
The issue of Thomas’s nephew is interesting. We interviewed the nephew for the book and he says that he does not want many people to know Justice Thomas is his uncle. We imagine that the nephew’s situation is not well known because it is not something that Thomas talks about in his public appearances nor would it come up in routine coverage of Thomas at the court.
This may relate to the “duality” question again, but what struck me about the man's life experiences is that they seem to have fueled this strange “denial” or “cognitive dissonance” when it comes to the conservative movement. One of many instances: does Thomas just not “get it” when Clint Bolick a friend of his, savages sister Lani Guanier when Bill Clinton tried to appoint her to Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and yet Thomas was also very, very close to Lani? Or was he just being pragmatic?
That is hard to answer and illustrates why an interview with Justice Thomas would have been great. We puzzle over things like that. We also puzzle over how Justice Thomas could toast former segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina or hold Rush Limbaugh in such high regard, despite his frequent departures into racial parody that crosses the line for many.
Indeed, you guys appear to create an almost reverse-allegory (sorry but I’m a fiction writer and that sneaks in!) when you briefly profile black conservative icons like George Schuyler, A. Philip Randolph, and of course Booker T. Washington. Are you saying that Thomas should try to emulate the independence and intellectual honesty of these men? By implication, then, can Clarence Thomas's life be summed up as a man who’s kidding himself?
Justice Thomas often comes across as a man burdened by the fact that he is a black conservative and he indicates that the black community punishes him for that fact. We just wanted to point out that Thomas is hardly the first black conservative nor is he the only black person who has had to confront expectations--some unreasonable--from the larger community. We don’t know whether Justice Thomas is kidding himself, but it seems that he does contribute to his own isolation by not engaging the community more regularly.
Gentlemen, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this man. Fascinating analysis of ambivalence and the forces that forged it. Nevetheless, I have a feeling that many African Americans will still want to carve that last several collective words of yours onto Clarence Thomas's public service headstone: "...it seems that he does contribute to his own isolation by not engaging the community..." Amen.
Best of luck on your book tour and we wish you continued success at the Post. We hope to see more of you on the talk shows & other media. Michael and Kevin's website can be accessed by clicking here. For those of you in the D.C. area they wil be appearing at Border's in downtown Silver Spring, MD on May 15 at 6:30pm.