It's impossible to forget those hearings 16 years ago when Clarence Thomas was nominated by George H.W. Bush for the Supreme Court. Even now, many see Thomas as a polarizing figure, although he stresses that he sees himself as a federal judge—not the ideologue he has been pictured to be. He also claims that the court is much less ridden by acrimony than the rest of Washington. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth last week about the hearings, his time on the court and his compelling new memoir, "My Grandfather's Son." Excerpts:
Weymouth: Why did you write the book?
Thomas: It started when my brother died. I suddenly realized I'm the last person in the house. There's nobody left who is going to tell the story. We both revered our grandfather. We were his biggest cheerleaders.
Although he didn't sound so nice when he kicked you out of his house.
I think he did the right thing. I think it was a kick in the pants. He used to go off in the woods by himself—he always said he was hunting but he rarely came back with anything—and I think it was just to think and to, as he used to say, "mull things over." I often wonder now how many times he second-guessed himself for doing that.
So you wanted to tell your story.
I had to tell it. Because there are people who [had] told portions of it but some of it was wrong. They'd say that I went to college on a "Martin Luther King Scholarship." I didn't. I was a transfer student. People have their own template and they impose it. I just wanted to tell the story as best I could—checking back with my mother and some of my relatives to make sure I didn't overstate anything. I have this hope that maybe in telling it there will be something in there for somebody who is still trying to live their life—especially some kids.
The court today seems so divided. It seems like the votes are always 5 to 4.
Yes, but that doesn't mean that the court doesn't get along. [We get] along just fine as an institution, as friends, as colleagues—it's a wonderful place. The mere fact that people disagree doesn't carry over into how they treat each other. That is what I thought Washington was going to be when I came to town. I didn't think for a moment that because I didn't agree with somebody meant I was going to be hated. It wasn't until I went into the Reagan administration that I started feeling that lash.
Why do you never speak in oral arguments?
It's not a necessary part of the job. The court used to be very quiet. This [speaking] is all new. Justice [Harry] Blackmun asked no questions, and nobody beat on him about it. I ask more than he did. Justice [William] Brennan rarely asked questions, Justice [Thurgood] Marshall told stories, but he rarely asked questions.
How do you think your hearings changed the confirmation process?
It's obvious, isn't it? Would you want to be nominated for something [now]? Justice White was, he told me, nominated on day one and sworn in 10 days later. Now look at the confirmation hearings, whether it's the chief justice or Justice Alito. You've got all of this controversy around them—how does that improve the court? I think it's really poisoned the well.
What gave you the drive to succeed?
I was driven by the fear of failure. I had obligations. If I failed, then what would I do next? What were my options in life?
When you were going through those hearings, did you think the whole thing was a mistake and you should never have accepted the nomination?
No, not really. I would have preferred not to have been nominated for any variety of reasons. But I think it's wrong for people to do bad things to other people.
Are you referring to the senators or Anita Hill?
No, I wasn't referring to her. I was thinking of the interest groups. There are always going to be people who are going to try to trip you up. But that doesn't mean that those who are in charge of the process should allow it to happen. People in authority should know better. That was my frustration.
Have you enjoyed your time on the court?
This job is a humbling experience. When you decide cases, you want to try to get it right. Some people know how they want it to come out before they start—they have a particular point of view—[so] the case is easy for them because they only see one side, their side. The rest of us have to look at both sides and think it through. I made a decision when I first got here: I will only do what is necessary to discharge the responsibilities under my oath. I will not do things for histrionics. I will not do things so people will think well of me. The job is important, it's not about me.
Have you moved intellectually to the right?
No, I never moved toward the right. I was a libertarian. What I wanted more than anything else was not to be in a box. People try to put me in one. They have become very comfortable with that when it comes to blacks. We're all supposed to be liberals, Democrats, and believe in affirmative action. I'm just like everybody else. I'm complicated; I think things through. I assume people will say that I am conservative. But the reason I wrote the book about my grandfather is that my views are consistent with his.
To the extent that I am conservative—I am conserving what they gave me. I made a decision to align myself with the Republican Party years ago. [But] I am not a Republican now. I am a federal judge and have been for almost 20 years. And I take that enormously … seriously. It is really important to me to do this job right, regardless of what anybody else says. President George Herbert Walker Bush asked me: can you call them as you see them if you get on the court? That's all the man exacted from me.
Along the road from Pin Point, Ga., to the Supreme Court, why did you not give up during difficult times?
I wanted to give up a hundred times. The thing that was so hurtful to me was after the end of that long journey to be beaten like that.
You mean at the hearings?
Yes, throughout the hearings, the summer, everything … I asked my wife, "Why? I just disagree with them. I don't even know if I disagree with them on specific issues." [But] I cannot carry around bitterness and at the same time carry around a positive message for young kids and for people who still need help. When my buddies and I get together, we talk about how can we help kids who are in the position we were in at 16, 17, 18 … We don't want these kids to humiliate themselves. We have an obligation to help because we were there, and we remember what it was like. My goal is: I will never treat anybody the way I was treated in this city. I also will never do my job as poorly as people did their jobs when I was at their mercy.