All civil-rights leaders ever do, Clarence Thomas once said, is "bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine." He has accused black leaders of creating a "cult mentality" that has "hypnotized black Americans into a mindless political trance." He has attacked affirmative action as more hindrance than help. He regards welfare as a trap that prolongs dependency and breaks up families. And he could make it more difficult for poor teenagers to get abortions.
If Thomas were white, the very idea of putting him on the Supreme Court would be an affront to the legacy of the justice he is replacing, the legendary Thurgood Marshall. But Thomas is black, and if his nomination to the high court is confirmed by the Senate, he will have more power than any black man in America. Perhaps, as black leaders themselves concede, he could not have made it but for the color of his skin. After only 16 months as a federal appellate judge, Thomas, 43, is at once younger and more inexperienced than most high-court nominees. Yet he is a symbol of self-help, living proof that even a sharecropper grandson can aspire to lofty heights.
For black leaders, his nomination presents a quandary. Can they really support a conservative who has repudiated the liberal policies they have struggled so long to win? Some activists, like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, have already declared their opposition. But most traditional black leaders are keeping mum, and the NAACP, which meets this week in Houston, is sharply divided. If black leaders do mount an assault on Thomas, it is not at all clear that black Americans will follow. Although early polls show that most African-Americans do not agree with his conservatism, they still approve of his nomination to the court. And if Thomas is defeated, what is to stop the Bush administration from coming back with another conservative-who is white and from a background far more privileged than Thomas's? It is, says Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a "painful" choice.
As Thomas, standing beside President Bush in Kennebunkport last week, blinked back tears of pride and gratitude, White House political operatives could scarcely contain their glee. The Democrats, they figured, were in a box. Which elitist senator was going to attack a well-spoken Yale Law School grad who had risen from poverty so deep that, until the age of 7, he had to share an outhouse with other tenement families? Democratic strategists grumbled about the GOP's cynical ploy: by filling the "black seat" on the high court, they said, Bush had provided himself with political cover to rail against racial quotas.
Thomas's nomination brought into sharp focus a debate between liberal traditionalists, who see government intervention as the only hope of overcoming the legacy of racial discrimination, and a new wave of black conservatives who preach the virtues of self-help (page 18). But Thomas's own life proves that reality is far more complicated. He is, in many ways, the sum of contradictions. For all his talk of self-reliance, Thomas has benefited from the civil-rights movement. He is an advocate of black pride, yet lives in a comfortable white suburb. He is a foe of big government, yet rose professionally in government jobs.
Thomas was rescued from the backwardness of Pin Point, Ga., by a Roman Catholic school run by white nuns for poor black children. At local NAACP meetings, his proud grandfather prodded him to read aloud his high grades to show that blacks could excel as well as whites. He did not escape bigotry. At his Catholic boarding school in Savannah, classmates taunted after lights out, "Smile, Clarence, so we can see you." (And no one, Thomas bitterly recalled, told them to shut up.) As a student at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., during the late '60s, Thomas joined black protests. One of them helped force a local shoe company to create an affirmative-action program to hire blacks. Still, Thomas did not mindlessly run with the pack. When he believed other blacks were taking advantage of their dates, he posted a poem entitled "Is You Is, or Is You Ain't?"-meaning that any black man who failed to respect women was not, in his estimation, a true brother.
An honor student at Holy Cross, he entered Yale Law School which had begun actively recruiting able blacks. At Yale he hung back from white teachers because, he later said, he feared they would give him a break just because of his race. Turning to the public sector after law school, he found a patron in the then Missouri attorney general, later Sen. John Danforth, a moderate Republican. But as a government lawyer, he avoided "black" law--civil rights--and specialized in tax and corporate law. In the Reagan administration, Thomas had no choice: the best job he could get was as assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department. After a year he became head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Openly ambitious for higher office, he ingratiated himself in conservative circles by preaching his self-help credo. He was sometimes treated with condescension. At the swearing-in ceremony for Thomas's second EEOC term in 1986, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights William Bradford Reynolds toasted him as "the epitome of the right kind of affirmative action." Thomas was stunned and resentful. He showed his own regard for affirmative action by rejecting the usual EEOC lawsuits-class actions on behalf of groups-to pursue only specific acts of individual discrimination.
Thomas made enemies along the way, offending liberal groups who may now haunt him at his confirmation hearings. Senior citizens' groups are not happy that Thomas let languish some 13,000 age-discrimination suits at the EEOC. Abortion-rights groups are up in arms about a speech he made at the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1987. Speaking in defense of "natural law," Thomas praised an article by right-winger Lewis Lehrman arguing on behalf of an "inalienable right" to life for the unborn. If Thomas shares Lehrman's convictions, he would be the most conservative Supreme Court justice, with the possible exception of Antonin Scalia. But the mere endorsement of an article is not proof positive. Some conservatives speculated that Thomas was being polite, since he was delivering his address in an auditorium named after Lehrman.
At his confirmation hearings, Thomas can probably dodge questions about abortion. Last week Vice President Dan Quayle suggested that Thomas follow the practice of other court nominees, who have often refused to discuss matters that might come before the court. Still, women's groups will openly oppose his nomination. Civil-rights groups may or may not follow suit. But they have launched a whispering campaign aimed at portraying him as an Uncle Tom.
According to friends as well as detractors, Thomas enjoys the perquisites of power. He had a taste for cognac and cigars, though he abandoned alcohol after a friendly drinking contest one night in 1984. In 1987 he married Virginia Lamp, the daughter of a conservative white Republican family from Nebraska. He lives in Alexandria, Va., with his son from his first marriage, Jamal, 18, who attended private school.
None of the chatter about Thomas's personal life will make any difference at his Senate hearings if he conducts himself in his usual articulate manner. But Thomas has a temper. "There's a lot of anger in him," says a friend. Thomas once dismissed an EEOC employee by leaving a note on her chair stating, "You're fired." His deep laugh has an ominous edge at times, say colleagues. "It's this deep Santa Claus laugh that says, 'I'm watching you'," said a former aide.
Thomas has not made his climb unscarred. His mother, he once told a friend, locked him in his room for hours and told him he was ugly. When he was 7, she sent him to live with his grandparents because her new husband did not want to be burdened with children by a prior marriage. Thomas's grandparents could be "mean," he has said. But they gave him a fierce sense of pride and the courage to make the kind of passage most whites cannot imagine. The man who will come before the Senate Judiciary Committee this September will not bring a long record of judicial opinions upon which he can be judged. But his whole life has been a lesson in overcoming poverty and discrimination. If confirmed, the wisdom he gained may help him to sit in judgment on others.
If confirmed, Clarence Thomas could cast the deciding vote on a number of controversial issues. His views as expressed in speeches, interviews and published articles:
Thomas opposes affirmative action to redress widespread discrimination. He favors remedies only when an individual can show he or she personally suffered from specific acts of discrimination.
Thomas has said little about the abortion debate. In a 1987 speech, however, he did hint at his opposition to abortion by praising an article that claimed that fetuses have an inalienable right to life.
Thomas has quoted his mother as saying, "When they took God out of the schools, the schools went to hell." He added, "She may be right."
A LONG CLIMB FROM POVERTY
Clarence Thomas's rise from poverty to Supreme Court justice-designate: as an altar boy in 1964, his 1971 Holy Cross graduation picture, with his wife and nuns in 1990 when he was sworn in as a U.S. appeals court judge