Supreme Mystery

When George Bush nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas stood on the Kennebunkport lawn and, with tears in his eyes, thanked the nuns who had set him on the road to success. At that moment, White House handlers said later they knew his extraordinary life story would become his message: from Pin Point, Ga., to the pinnacle of Washington power in four decades. The Senate will begin to examine that story this week. For two months, NEWSWEEK correspondents have followed Thomas back to his roots. What emerges is a fascinating-and contradictory-tale about one American and his future.

He is the juridical embodiment of Newton's Third Law: For every Clarence Thomas revealed in this anecdote or that speech, there seems to be an equal and opposite Clarence Thomas somewhere else. Which Thomas has President Bush nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court?

In one universe, there is the compassionate, even-tempered, curious and independent Thomas, the quintessence of old-fashioned hard work and self-help. This is the black Horatio Alger for our time: a humble individual who has lifted himself up and out from punishing Southern poverty to the peaks of power, never forgetting those who paved the path along the way. He knew the names of all the women who toiled behind the steam counters in the Senate cafeteria, he stays in touch with the Roman Catholic nuns who taught him, he takes time to talk to Washington's homeless. This Thomas can't wait to open his mind to a new subject; once he learned of the lore of Lincoln, he scoured stores and bought shelves of books. Discovering gardening, he planted 400 tulip bulbs in his yard. This Thomas understands racism and bigotry the way an owl knows the night; he stared down the Reagan administration when he thought his principles required it. This Thomas even reads psalms every day.

In the other, darker universe exists the bitter, impulsive, hotheaded and opportunistic Thomas. Here is the family man who publicly skewered his own sister as an example of welfare addiction. And the 33-year-old civil-rights chief at the Department of Education who bellowed to an aide, "You could fill books with what you don't know." And the boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who tried to transfer an employee 2,500 miles away for making critical remarks (to NEWSWEEK, incidentally). Here is the Thomas who vowed not to take any job involving racial issues, only to accept two from Ronald Reagan. Here is the Thomas who logs obsessive hours at a desk and in the gym, had his kid doing pushups at the age of 3, and confided to a friend that he idolized Darth Vader (who, strangely enough, abandoned his son just as Thomas's father did).

Conflict and confusion have been Thomas's signature. He's a teetotaling Republican in superstarched collars, who can be seen tooling about in his black Corvette smoking a stogie. He once embraced the black-nationalist teachings of Malcolm X; today his second wife is white and they reside in a predominantly white Virginia suburb. Thomas was born a Baptist, went to a Catholic seminary and now attends an Episcopal church. He prefers to go any day but Sunday because, as he told an interviewer in 1984, "God is all right. It's the people I don't like." He has lived in Washington for 12 years but doesn't root for the hometown Redskins; just to be contrary, he's a fan of their blood rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. Although he preaches the gospel of restraint in constitutional interpretation, in the next breath he supports the boundless notion of natural law-all that bouncing around is philosophical pinball. And, of course, the most glaring contradiction: Thomas is an intense opponent of affirmative action, yet has benefited from it throughout his life. Indeed, the protestations of the president notwithstanding, the very reason he was named to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court is because of his race.

Taking the advice of his White House handlers, Thomas has declined to be interviewed-to amplify, to reconcile, to deny. But in his own words over the years, Thomas has acknowledged his dual self. "I am the product of hatred and love," he said in a 1985 commencement address. "The hatred of the social and political structure which dominated the segregated, hate-filled city of my youth, and the love of some people-my mother, my grandparents, my neighbors and relatives-who said by their actions, 'You can make it, but first you must endure'."

Those who know him paint a similar picture of a boy and a man torn by family and race. From a ramshackle hamlet in coastal Georgia to a seminary in rural Missouri, from Holy Cross to Yale Law, from the EEOC to the threshold of the highest court in the land-Clarence Thomas's life is a puzzle that offers the pieces for prediction: What type of justice might he make and what kind will he dispense? It is 43 years that reflect the continuing, central dilemma of a nation and the personal struggle of one African-American.

This is the story of that journey.

Even before the birth, there was the grandfather looming over Clarence Thomas. In the Savannah spring of 1948, when Leola Thomas was pregnant, her father would stand before her, making faces and muttering at her belly. Leola and her husband, M. C. Thomas, already had a daughter. Now 52-year-old granddaddy Myers Anderson was trying to will that this second baby would be a boy. This unnerved Leola, all of 18 years old. "Every time I came to visit, Daddy would do that to me," she recalls. "Somebody had told him that if you make a pregnant woman mad, the baby would come out looking like you." The child, Clarence Thomas, was born on June 23, 1948, with the help of a midwife. The family soon moved a few miles to Pin Point, a rundown enclave of 500 on the Moon River.

Pin Point was named for the plantation that once occupied the land. After the Civil War, it was subdivided and given to the former slaves. For generations poor blacks lived side by side with whites, subsisting by cleaning crabs and shucking oysters, with a little hardscrabble farming mixed in. The town looked much as it does today. Live-oak trees covered with moss lined the sandy streets. Brick houses owned by whites were sandwiched between the shacks and trailers of the blacks. The Thomas family lived with aunt Annie Graham in a one-room wooden house near the marshes. It had dirt floors and no plumbing or electricity.

When Thomas was 2, his father abandoned the family, heading north to Philadelphia. Leola was pregnant with her third child. She got by on a weekly wage of $15 from crabbing and cleaning house for a white woman. The children lived on cornflakes, crabs and grits mixed on occasion with eggs, Carnation milk and syrup. They wore old clothes from the local church, they passed time in the streets, they survived. The mother held the family together for five years, until the house burned down. It was to be the first and most important fortuity in Thomas's life.

The family moved into a small Savannah house around the corner from Granddaddy Anderson and his wife. For a time, the kids stayed there while their mother worked. "Then one day," Leola remembers, "I came by and mother said, 'They know you're their mother, but can I keep them all the time? You just come and get them when you want'." Leola agreed. "I didn't have no other choice." Moreover, Leola's new husband didn't want the burden of the children. While his sister, Emma Mae, went back to Pin Point to live with doting Aunt Annie, Clarence and his younger brother moved in with Myers Anderson. So, as Thomas turned 7, began the key influence on his personal and legal values. "When the civil-rights people indict me," Thomas said after his grandfather's death in 1983, "the man they are indicting is that man. Let them call him from the grave and indict him."

Anderson was a man in control. Leola says his stare could make her wilt until the day he died. Forced to suffer indignities from whites who dictated menial jobs in segregated Savannah, Anderson wanted independence. A single incident in the early '50s, when Myers was a $3-a-week wood hauler, pushed him to find it. A white coworker attacked him for wearing a nice watch and forced it off his wrist. "Damn, I'm going into business for myself," Anderson said. He sawed the top off his old Model T and made it a truck. In summer, he delivered ice to the black community; in winter, coal and wood. He bought successively larger trucks. Anderson Fuel Oil Co. was born. With his own cement machine, Myers made enough cinder blocks to build a six-room bungalow on East 32nd Street.

For a black in Savannah during the Eisenhower '5Os, Anderson flourished. Tall, slender and driven, he made a living in spite of a system that conspired to hold him down. He learned to read by perusing the Bible. He was a pious Catholic, loyal Democrat and vocal NAACP member. His home had a toilet and his grandsons, for the first time, ate three meals a day. For Clarence and his brother, Peanut (Myers was his real name), the days of playing hooky were over. "Boy, you are going to school today," Granddaddy would tell them. "You goin' do better'n I'm doing." For $30 a year, Anderson enrolled them in St. Benedict the Moor, an all-black grammar school run by white nuns.

It was these nuns whom Thomas went out of his way to thank the day in July that George Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court. The nuns, who lived in the black areas of town, were not popular. Whites occasionally referred to them as the "nigger sisters"; the Ku Klux Klan once sent a hearse to the rectory to intimidate church officials. Much like Myers Anderson, the nuns taught discipline and duty. "They said you could 'do it'," recalls Orion Douglass, a classmate of Clarence's. "Mostly, they said you will do it."

Thomas entered St. Benedict's in the second grade. Sister Mary Virgilius Reidy remembers him as a good, not great, student. Clarence was an altar boy, a crossing guard and an asphalt athlete. He played touch football (albeit with a tennis ball), but was known best for his basketball prowess at recess. Roy Allen, his friend and fellow altar boy at Sunday mass, says Thomas was swift and burly and good with an elbow, which made up for his lack of height. His nickname on the court: "Cooz," after the ball-handling wizard of the Boston Celtics. "Cooz hated to lose," says Allen, now a Georgia state senator.

After school, Clarence and Peanut would change out of their uniforms and run delivery routes with their grandfather. They pulled the heavy hose down from the truck and dragged it into houses to fill the oil tanks. "I was glad he wasn't my grandfather," says Robert Deshay, a childhood friend. "He used to work Clarence like a dog." When dinner was over, the boys washed dishes, did their homework and went to sleep. There was a TV, but they weren't allowed to watch much. On occasion, Clarence and his buddies would go to the dilapidated Eastside and Dunbar movie houses to watch Westerns. "We used to joke that even if the movie wasn't any good, we'd have a great time watching the rats play in the corner," says Carlton Stewart.

Three nights a week, Thomas walked to a library, built by the Carnegies, for blacks; the public library in Savannah was for whites only. Any subject interested him. "I used to run to the library to flip through the pages and dream," he told Juan Williams in a 1987 Atlantic profile. "I just remember The New Yorker. You know, what did I know about New York? But I said, one day I'm going to be able to read this, be sophisticated enough to deal with these kinds of things." Books were also a source of refuge. "When he'd get mad at me or Daddy," Leola recalls, "he wouldn't show it. He'd take off to the library and read."

Thomas both feared and revered his grandfather, whom he called Granddaddy or Daddy. Anderson's withering gaze and scalding tongue consistently hit their marks. "My daddy wouldn't whip them," says Leola, now 62 and still working in Savannah, "but that tongue! When he lashed me with it, I'd start screaming." He could be so unrelenting that the boys sometimes admonished their mother to stand up to him. "Talk back to Daddy?" Leola asks. "Not me. Not to that man!"

It was a stern, controlling household. "Mr. Anderson would tell Clarence, 'I'm not going to give you anything'," Stewart says. " 'What I will do is give you the opportunity to earn it'." Anderson held such a grip on his grandson that Deshay says he didn't know until high school that Thomas even had a sister or mother. (When he got older, Thomas tracked down his long-absent father, though the two see little of each other.) And he repeatedly saluted his grandparents. "School, discipline, hard work and 'right-from-wrong' were of the highest priority," he said in a 1987 speech to the Heritage Foundation. "The most compassionate thing they did for us was to teach us to fend for ourselves in an openly hostile environment. Those who attempt to capture the daily counseling, oversight, common sense and vision of my grandparents in a governmental program are engaging in sheer folly."

Within the confines of a segregated society, Thomas's life in Savannah was comfortable and secure. Thurgood Marshall, as a civil-rights lawyer, had won Brown v. Board of Education at the Supreme Court in 1954, but the struggle to integrate society in the South and in the North was years off; roadside billboards demanded the impeachment of Earl Warren, the court's chief justice. Still, Savannah worked, so it seemed. It was a world that ratified the ethic of both Myers Anderson and the nuns. Nonetheless, even at his young age, Thomas saw the pathology of racism. His black neighbors knew him as ABC-America's Blackest Child, Thomas bitterly confessed to The Atlantic. He was teased not only for his dark complexion, but also for his thick lips and head of hair. "Nigger naps," they called it. This dissonance-between the lofty ideals of merit and the ugly reality of racism-was about to intensify. So was Thomas's ambivalence.

Thomas graduated from St. Benedict's in 1962. For two years, he attended the black St. Pius X High School, part of the local diocese. Then, under pressure from his grandfather to become a priest, he transferred to a white Catholic boarding school on the outskirts of Savannah. At St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, he excelled academically-getting into trouble only for reading in the bathroom past the 9 p.m. curfew. Yet Thomas was lost in this place he was being forced to integrate. He had earned the right to be recognized for his work. Everything he had been taught told him so. What he got instead was hate, based simply on the color of his skin. Classmates would get up when he sat down. As lights went out in the dormitory, someone would yell, "Smile, Clarence, so we can see you." That "wasn't the bad part," Thomas said. "It was no one saying, 'Shut up'."

These experiences, Thomas said, produced a period of self-hate in which "you hate yourself for being part of a group that's gotten the hell kicked out of them." It is a recurring theme in Thomas's ruminations. "I don't fit in with whites and I don't fit in with blacks," he told Legal Times in 1984. "We're a mixed-up generation, those of us who were sent out to integrate society." There was no place to look for solace. "We'd get called coon and nigger every day at school," says Allen, who was the first black at a Georgia military school. "But you had to tough it out. You always had in the back of your mind that you couldn't let your parents or the nuns down. That was the kind of hold they had on you. "

Despite the traumas, Thomas continued his studies for the clergy. In 1967 he enrolled as one of only four blacks in his class at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in the cornfields of northwestern Missouri. Half of the 65 young men who arrived that autumn were gone by the next spring, so the fact that Thomas left, too, isn't by itself noteworthy. One incident, however, is. On the night of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. As fellow seminarians were watching the TV coverage, Thomas heard one of them cheer, "Good, I hope the s.o.b. dies." He had been harassed before and managed to keep his equilibrium. But the King remark-and the hypocrisy it dramatized-was "the last straw," Thomas said. "I knew I couldn't stay in this so-called Christian environment." He walked out of the seminary shortly thereafter. The priesthood beckoned no longer.

If Clarence Thomas's Southern upbringing was characterized by restraint and obedience, his Yankee college days were a time of doubt and defiance. He acknowledged as much. "I saw myself rejecting the way of life that got me to where I was," he told an interviewer in 1987. "We rejected a very stable, disciplined environment." Here, in the late '60s, was a collage of the age: Vietnam protests, all-night rap sessions, and a black 20-year-old in goatee, combat boots, Army fatigues and a blue denim hat dotted with sloganeering buttons. Thomas studied hard, tried pot and fell in love.

After quitting the seminary, Thomas had worked awhile, then headed north and east to resume school. On the prodding of both Deshay and Sister Mary Carmen Ryan, the science teacher who sent his grades to an admissions dean, Thomas entered Holy Cross. Arriving in 1968 at the Jesuit campus in Worcester, Mass., he met many students who had been educated by nuns. Few, though, had ever seen a black person. "Some parents were really disgruntled when they brought their freshmen in and found they'd be rooming with a black," says Father John Brooks, the current president.

There were five other blacks in his sophomore class, 19 more among the freshmen. In the shadow of the King murder, the Jesuits had launched an ambitious minority-recruitment effort. It made Holy Cross a tough place to be a black. "When you have two or three blacks, it's novel," says Walter Roy, who was a year behind Thomas. "When you have 25 or 30, it's an invasion." Thomas and other blacks founded the Black Student Union. The BSU demanded a "Soul Room," more black courses and more financial aid. They protested the school's fight song, which had a line about an "old black joe"; it was changed to "go, Cross, go." Every Sunday night, BSU meetings were rhetorical slugfests over Vietnam, civil rights and race. "We talked about whether we were black enough or too black," recalls Carlton Stewart. "It was the highlight of the week," says Eddie Jenkins. Thomas loved to play devil's advocate. "He'd be the only person on one side, with 30 or 40 arguing against him," Jenkins says. "Half of the things he said I never believed."

The following year, the black students decided to live together. "It was a shock to the school," says John Dorenkamp, Thomas's Shakespeare professor. "Here they were asking for segregation." The administration gave them part of Healey Dorm, which they named the Black Corridor. At the time of the BSU vote on it, Thomas was the lone dissenter. "If one was at Holy Cross, he should profit from the experience by learning to associate with and understand the white majority," he explained in 1984. Yet Thomas went along-and brought his old white roommate, John Siraco. That created an image problem for Thomas, but he trusted Siraco. Their room was stark and compulsively neat. Thomas had a Huey Newton poster; Siraco hung up Julie Christie.

Eight other Savannah blacks made it to Holy Cross during the three years Thomas was there, and he was their mentor. Still, most of the blacks on campus were inner-city kids who were probably Thomas's first exposure to blacks under the sway of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale. Thomas occasionally wore the leather beret of Seale's Black Panthers and signed his letters, "Power to the People." The Panthers, he said later, "offered for some of us, who were young and hotblooded and ill-tempered, another way." But Thomas the ethnocentrist was never the radical. "We all were activists then," says Siraco, now a pediatrician in Hartford. Thomas still spoke the conservative maxims of his grandfather and the nuns far more often than the chic of the left.

Thomas's chief act of rebellion came in 1969. Roughly 50 students had blocked the appearance at Holy Cross of a recruiter from General Electric, a military contractor. The administration suspended 16 for the rest of the year, seemingly singling out blacks for punishment, though virtually all the protesters were white. Less than 24 hours after the suspensions were announced, almost all the black students-shrewdly clad in coat and tie-marched off the campus, tossing their ID cards on the way out. Thomas was one of them. Within days, the school relented.

Like many young men, Thomas managed to avoid serving in Vietnam through a combination of student deferments and medical problems. He registered with Selective Service on turning 18 in 1966, finally getting called up for a physical three years later. He passed, but his deferment was continued. Upon graduation, in June 1971, he was reclassified 1-A. With his lottery number of 109, it appeared that he might actually have to serve. But in September, just as law school began, he failed the medical exam; the White House says the reason was curvature of the spine. Thomas's brother, Myers, served in the Air Force in Thailand.

Thomas thrived in his studies. While most students worked in their rooms, Thomas holed up in the library. He majored in English literature and graduated ninth in his class. Although only 5 feet 9, he grew strong enough in the weight room to benchpress 275 pounds. He also held down jobs as a waiter and dishwasher in the cafeteria.

Near the end of his sophomore year, he met Kathy Grace Ambush. His friend Jenkins had met Kathy and her twin sister, who came from the family of a Worcester dental technician. They went to a nearby Catholic women's college, but roomed at home. Jenkins eventually introduced Clarence to Kathy. Since he couldn't afford to go home on holidays, Thomas spent them with Kathy's family. His friends remember him with no other girl. In June 1971, on the day following Holy Cross graduation, they were married in Worcester. In 1973, Clarence and Kathy had a son, whom they gave the Muslim name, Jamal.

Clarence Thomas-the worker, organizer, thinker-didn't plan to become a lawyer. "I got the impression that it was almost an afterthought," says Siraco. Nonetheless, Thomas was accepted in 1971 at Yale, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. He chose Yale in part because of the financial aid it gave him. Yale chose him in part because of a new, aggressive affirmative-action plan. The policy had the goal of having blacks and other minorities comprise roughly 10 percent of each class, school officials acknowledged to The New York Times in July. Yale used different standards to evaluate these applicants. No one got in who hadn't shown an ability to succeed, says admissions dean James Thomas, but "I have no doubt that in some measure Clarence was preferred because of his background."

He knew it, too. And it infuriated him. "You had to prove yourself every day because the presumption was that you were dumb and didn't deserve to be there on merit," Thomas said in 1980. "Every time you walked into a lawschool class at Yale, it was like having a monkey jump down on your back from the Gothic arches."

The monkey on his back. Throughout his career, Thomas would be both the beneficiary of affirmative action-and haunted by it. To be rewarded simply because of his color confounded the canon of his youth-that recognition came only from demonstrated excellence. Now, race was obscuring that guiding light: Precisely because he was black, he was given position and place. Yet because he was black, he was denied the recognition he deserved.

Thomas went out of his way not to be identified by his blackness: Straining to receive colorblind treatment, he became obsessed with hiding his own color. He sat at the back of his classrooms. He avoided advanced courses on civil rights and constitutional law, even though several years earlier he told friends of his interest in them. He concentrated on technical subjects such as antitrust and tax law. At the same time, his closest friends were black and he played on an all-black intramural football team. His summer jobs seemed to reflect a wish to have it both ways. He worked one summer in a New Haven legal-aid storefront, helping poor people prepare for welfare hearings. He spent another summer at the first integrated law firm in Georgia, Hill, Jones & Farrington. "Thomas's briefs were perfectly argued on both sides," says Bobby Hill, one of the partners. "I was incensed that he never gave me his own opinion. He had a Cheshire-cat face and was greatly lacking in emotion."

Given his earnestness at Holy Cross, Thomas was a likely candidate for campus activist at Yale Law. Instead he buried himself in cases and briefs. He traded in his fatigues for denim bib overalls, the uniform of his grandfather and Thomas's statement of solidarity with the working class. Rising early, he spent the entire day at school, not going home until after midnight. His grades were average.

In 1974, as law school wound down and the job hunt began, Thomas once again found himself in a racial box. Few upper-crust firms would interview him. Those that did patronized him by emphasizing pro bono activities over corporate work. "I went to law school to be a lawyer, not a social worker," Thomas angrily recounted to The Atlantic. Thomas did receive an offer from the Savannah firm where he'd worked-but rejected it when they wouldn't pay him more than $22,500.

As it turned out, that was roughly double what he ended up getting. Thomas signed on with Missouri's Republican attorney general, John Danforth, who was looking for talent to stock his reform-minded staff. A Yale Law alumnus and an Episcopal minister, Danforth did his recruiting personally and took a special liking to Thomas. It was another fortuitous moment for the young attorney: Thomas was returning to Missouri, where he had spent such an unhappy year at the seminary. And Danforth would go on to become Thomas's political mentor.

Thomas, in 1974, was the first black in Danforth's 45-lawyer office, but the attorney general assured him that was not the point. Thomas repeatedly emphasized it himself At his job interview, Thomas did the questioning. He wanted to be sure. "Are you going to treat me as harshly as anyone else?" He was, in the sense that too many assignments were piled on him. He loved it. And, for the most part, he got his wish to be far away from race-oriented matters. That meant tax law.

Thomas's best-known victory came in a license-plates case. The governor had decided to eliminate "vanity" tags and owners sued, claiming a property interest. The state lost at the lower court. Danforth thought an appeal futile, since many influential people owned the plates. Thomas went to the higher court and won. "Clarence has always been proud of that decision to stand up against all those people endowed with privilege," says Duane Benton, an acquaintance from Yale and Missouri. Despite his priorities in the office, outside Thomas was quietly active on behalf of blacks, providing counseling at Lincoln University.

The Jefferson City headquarters for the A.G.'s staff was a dump with peeling walls. The lawyers, though, were an extraordinary group: Two would go on to the governor's mansion, two to the U.S. Senate and one to the federal bench. Thomas himself shared space with John Ashcroft, the current governor. One of his best friends was Dick Wieler, a quadriplegic since he contracted polio at 15. Their burdens were their bond. "We both know what it's like to struggle," says Wieler, who still works in the office. "We were always afraid that people would say you got where you are because of some program." When Wieler needed help, Thomas was the one who lifted the wheelchair. Together they spent hours at Wieler's 40-acre farm nearby, watching fish jump in the pond.

Around the office, Thomas's trademarks were his awful sports coat, booming laugh and eagerness to debate. "If you wanted to argue that vanilla ice cream was better than strawberry, Clarence would take a side," says Neil Bernstein. "He was the type who'd go into a room without knowing anyone," says Michael Boicourt. "Before he left, he'd have talked to everyone and they'd all like him." Thomas also had a reputation for being a bit status-conscious. The only thing he hung on his wall was an ad for a Rolls-Royce. "He kept telling me that was the car for a gentleman to drive," Wieler says. As it was, he got a BMW. Thomas lived with his wife and young son in an apartment overlooking the state penitentiary. Thomas occasionally went out for a beer with friends-he liked the local country-and-Western bars-but Kathy rarely went along.

In 1977 Danforth moved to Washington to take his Senate seat. Thomas headed off to the private sector in St. Louis, to be counsel for Monsanto, the chemical giant. "Once Jack left, he didn't see any reason for being there," Wieler says. Money had something to do with it as well: Thomas's salary doubled. "It's time to pay off my loans," he explained to a colleague. In his two and a half years at Monsanto he learned the law of pesticides, fungicides and rodinicides. Then Thomas was ready for the switch to Washington. "He was a very ambitious guy," Bernstein says, "and he was looking for a position of prominence."

Jack Danforth, his political mentor, didn't forget that. He adored Thomas from the days in Jefferson City and was all too happy to get him back on staff. Thomas still wished to avoid the stigma of black issues, so he was put in charge of energy and environmental projects. Yet he had started to reformulate his thoughts on the whole question of race and social policy. The leftist politics of the '60s had confused Thomas's deeply ingrained notions of self-help. He had responded at Yale by essentially dropping out of politics. But in Missouri, then Washington, he became intrigued by the work of conservative black economists-Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, among others. He experienced something akin to a revelation. "It was like pouring half a glass of water on the desert," Thomas reflected in 1987. "I just soaked it up." Like him, those conservatives believed that affirmative action hurt blacks more than it helped because it made them dependent on the state rather than on themselves. Individual enterprise, not government handouts, would liberate blacks. Thomas did what casual readers wouldn't dream of: He called the authors to chat. Chris Brewster, a Danforth aide who shared an office with Thomas in Washington, recalls him telling them, "I wasn't aware there was someone else like me out there."

Brewster relishes another telephonic foray. In 1980, literally minutes after he gave Thomas a copy of the Lincoln Review, a policy journal for black conservatives, Thomas dialed its editor, Jay Parker. The review, whose advisory board Thomas joined, has run articles questioning the existence of discrimination, describing abortion as an attempt to "slaughter" blacks, and suggesting replacement of the King holiday with a commemorative coin. Parker, himself controversial as a black who has lobbied for the South African government, would soon be recruiting blacks for the new Reagan administration.

On the eve of Reagan's first Inauguration, Thomas attended a San Francisco conference of 100 black conservatives, nearly all just as obscure as he. It was there, however, that Thomas earned a reputation: He excoriated his sister-wrongly, as it turned out at the time-for being on welfare. "She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check, " he said in a speech. "That's how dependent she is." The Reaganauts noticed this blunt, black Republican.

In February, Thomas was offered a slot on the White House policy staff handling energy and environment-his specialties. This seemed a good offer, given what he thought months earlier. "If I ever went to work for the EEOC or did anything directly connected with blacks, my career would be irreparably ruined," he told The Washington Post. "The monkey would be on my back again to prove I didn't have the job because I'm black." But Thomas turned the White House down. Instead, four months later, he did what he insisted he never would. He took a "black job," as head of civil rights in the Education Department.

What happened? Thomas never explained. It may simply be that he went for the highest-profile job he could get. But it may also be that he felt the best way to get the monkey off his back was to attack it where it lived-in the federal affirmative-action programs that had sprouted up since the '60s. Despite inexperience in the arcana of civil-rights law, Thomas had strong personal views forged from his own experience and recent exposure to the right-wing intelligentsia. Economic empowerment, self-reliance, distrust of government-these were the canons of the nascent black conservative movement. In his short stay at Education, Thomas provided a glimpse of the tussles to come at EEOC. He clashed with career employees who charged that he failed to enforce laws barring discrimination in school athletic programs as well as against the handicapped. "He knew nothing about the law on this," says a former aide. "He just made a political call."

Thomas began to dress like a conservative, sporting dark, elegant suits. In cocktail chatter, he learned to drop such iconic names as Sowell and Robert Bork. Ten months after Thomas arrived at Education, Reagan appointed him to head the EEOC, the nation's chief antidiscrimination agency. The two needed some getting used to each other: On his first day on the job, Thomas showed up raring to go; the lobby guard wouldn't let him in until he produced ID. When he got to his office, there was no chair.

Thomas now had a national platform for taking on what he perceived as the excesses of affirmative action. But attacking racial preferences wasn't so easy. In his job, he was sworn to uphold the laws that required affirmative action; he was enforcer, not lawmaker. In eight years at EEOC, Thomas was a model of inconsistency. He fought colleagues, critics, Congress and, apparently, himself. In several cases in 1983, he opposed the use of numerical hiring goals-a classic affirmative-action remedy for discrimination. Thomas thought them destructive to minorities in the end. Then, only months later, he supported the use of such racial preferences. "These laws and their proper application are all that stand between the first 17 years of my life and the second," he said. Following the 1984 election, he tacked hard to the right, coming out against preferences. In 1986, when he was up for confirmation to a second EEOC term, he assured senators that he would resume seeking goals and timetables against employers. "Whatever reservations I have are purely personal," he said. "They're subversive literature now."

Thomas's friends say he believed in affirmative action based on economic need, not color. While individual acts of hiring discrimination should be remedied aggressively, class-action awards predicated on racial statistics were inappropriate. He delighted in asking critics whether Georgetown University's basketball team was biased simply because there weren't any whites on it. Frank Washington, a Yale friend, says Thomas recognized that affirmative action helped to get him into law school, but on the basis of economic deprivation rather than race. Yet, typically, there is the contrary account: Colleagues say Thomas frequently wondered aloud why anyone needed government assistance, since nobody helped him besides Granddaddy and the nuns.

Thomas's supporters like to emphasize how much he quarreled with the Reagan Justice Department during his EEOC days. They're quick to note how he distanced himself from civil-rights chief Brad Reynolds on the Bob Jones case, in which the administration argued that parochial schools that discriminate should still get tax-exempt status. But the image of Thomas stomping over to Justice to take on the Reagan conservatives appears exaggerated. Reynolds himself recalls only disputes "just around the margins." With Reynolds's blessing, Thomas was named to a second term. Civil-rights leaders-whom Thomas said in a 1984 interview did little more than "bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine"-Could put up only feeble resistance.

On matters quite apart from affirmative action, Thomas had a rough ride at EEOC. In 1989, it came out that Thomas had let 9,000 age-discrimination complaints lapse. He called this inaction "the worst event during my tenure." His allies note the mistake never would have been discovered without the computer systems that Thomas installed. They say his greatest contribution at EEOC was administrative-boosting morale and revitalizing an agency in chaos. Not all employees were fans. The stress of his job began to show, and Thomas could be petty. He sometimes waited outside the front entrance just after 9, sipping his morning diet Coke and seeing who arrived late. He fired a woman by taping a note to her chair. With one employee at least, Thomas went too far. In 1983, Frank Quinn, chief of the San Francisco branch for 17 years, was months away from retirement; he told NEWSWEEK that he couldn't figure out why Washington refused to approve his lawsuits. Several weeks later, he found that Thomas had transferred him to Birmingham, Ala. Quinn went to court instead. A federal judge blocked the move, describing it as an "overly outraged reaction" to punish Quinn "for the exercise of his First Amendment rights."

Thomas's personal life also unraveled. He was getting trashed on the Hill, where Democrats constantly hauled him up for hearings. The administration was on him for not doing all its bidding. "He felt he was misunderstood," says his friend Armstrong Williams. "He wanted to be liked and respected." It was during this period that he stopped drinking. At the same time, he was trying to get over the death of his grandfather. And, hardest, Thomas's home was in turmoil. Clarence and Kathy separated in 1981, finally divorcing three years later. Kathy agreed to give custody of Jamal to Clarence. Conspicuously little is known about why the marriage broke down. Kathy, now the director of summer programs of Milton Academy in Milton, Mass., declines to comment. The divorce agreement cites only "unfortunate differences."

Thomas considered taking a job in private practice, perhaps moving back to Savannah or St. Louis. In the end, he decided to stick out another term at EEOC. He stabilized his home life as well. As a single parent, Thomas modeled himself after Myers Anderson. He gave Jamal a curfew, an exercise regimen and a nickname, "The Dude." When it appeared Jamal had a learning disability, Thomas told the boy he just wasn't working hard enough. Once asked whether he wanted his son to be an NFL player or president, he replied, "Both." Thomas sent Jamal to a nearby Catholic school because he thought the public schools teach kids to be lazy. "I don't want him to be an affirmative-action kid who might be in over his head," he said. (Next year, at his father's urging, Jamal enters the rigorous Virginia Military Institute, the state-supported school that recently won court approval to remain all male.)

Following his divorce, Thomas dated a number of Washington women. He was on the GOP most-eligible list, and Republicans were always trying to fix him up with prominent blacks. Armstrong Williams says his friend didn't like dining or dancing, and could "bore women to death." Nothing worked out, until April 1987, when Thomas attended a conference in New York City. One participant was Virginia Bess Lamp, a spokesperson for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who is white. Thomas took an immediate liking to the 30-year-old Lamp, a lawyer, Methodist and active Republican. After five months, they were married in Nebraska, where she grew up. Jamal was best man. Thomas didn't like the idea of intermarriage, but, he told a friend, "I know what it's like to be unhappy. This is someone I'm happy with."

In the '80s, as Thomas climbed his way through government, his friends would joke that he was being groomed to replace Thurgood Marshall. Thomas laughed them off. But after George Bush was inaugurated in 1989, a friend turned to Thomas and asked him what position he might want in the new administration. "A seat on the Supreme Court," he replied. Within months, to no one's surprise, Bush nominated Thomas to the federal appeals court in Washington, a way station for justices-in-waiting. Since his nearly unanimous confirmation by the Senate in March 1990, Thomas has written 20 routine opinions. As judicial experience goes, that's relatively little for a seat on the Supremes. None has concerned vital constitutional issues. Only one was controversial and that's because it threw out a $10.4 million damage award against Ralston-Purina-a company founded and owned in large part by the family of Danforth, his political patron. Some legal ethicists say Thomas should have disclosed the potential conflict. The White House says Thomas was under no such requirement.

In the courthouse where Robert Bork and now Justice Antonin Scalia roamed just a few years ago, Thomas is known for being diligent and courteous, yet so far has no reputation for intellect or originality. "He's not considered a heavyweight," says one law clerk. "It's too early to tell if that's due to inexperience or lack of candlepower." Thomas remains unaffected. He works out with the guards at lunchtime and has served as wienie chef at barbecues for the staff. When he dines with his brethren, it's often at the Hard Times Cafe for chili. Says Abner Mikva, the chief judge: "He's no nerd."

Maybe so, but that doesn't say what kind of Supreme Court justice he would make. Even his passage from poverty to prosperity fails to reveal much about his style of constitutional interpretation; courageous people with inspirational life stories can be liberal or conservative, stupid or wise. Trying to decipher the thinking of Supreme Court nominees has become a parlor game in Washington. Last year, with David Souter, you couldn't find anything. With Thomas, you can find anything. It is maddening. Thomas is a doctrinal dilettante. He admires Lincoln, Churchill, Jay Parker and Ayn Rand. He has long understood that he provokes strong feelings. "If people just gave me a chance," he told a friend, "I think they would see that my ways are better than the ways of the past."

Trouble is, the brooding, up-and-down life of Clarence Thomas suggests everything and nothing about a philosophy for judging. Of course, he's more likely to be conservative than liberal; look at the company he keeps and the administration that named him. On affirmative action, his virulent objection to group remedies won't lead to expansive readings of either the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause or congressional legislation. But at the same time, Thomas's profound distaste for government meddling in individual affairs manifests a libertarian streak-a view that the state acts best when it acts least. He certainly knows what happens when the state is your enemy. If he wants to be consistent theoretically, that means on abortion, say-he'd have to take an adamantly pro-choice position.

Now, though, consider the conundrum of "natural law." Thomas has repeatedly praised this ancient notion that there are governing principles higher than any written law. The Declaration of Independence-proclaiming that persons are "endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights"-is the classic American statement of it. In 1987, Thomas hailed conservative Lewis Lehrman for arguing that human fetuses have a constitutional right to life. It was, Thomas said, a "splendid example of applying natural law." So Thomas might use natural law to rule against abortion. Maybe a good idea, maybe a bad idea-but not much different, after all, from what the liberals did in the first place when they invented the constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, they just said the right was based on "privacy." The point is that even on abortion-which Thomas clearly seems to oppose viscerally-he's all over the jurisprudential map.

Beyond the ripples of the moment lie issues that no one can predict. Genetics, environmental catastrophe, international upheaval, changing definitions of family-all these will come before the Supreme Court. They will require a justice to weigh the tension between individual freedom and state authority that is central to the Constitution. Are Thomas's contradictions and confusion evidence of an open mind or the mark of a raw, angry temperament? If he makes it to the high court will he be lured into the charismatic web of Scalia-much the way he was drawn to Sowell? Or will Thomas assert his contrary nature against the ideological tidal wave of the Rehnquist Right?

Don't expect to find out at this week's confirmation hearings. Clarence Thomas has been coached for weeks to reveal little to his inquisitors. But it is the duty of a justice to take a stand on society's most vexing questions. If Clarence Thomas becomes one, he'll have no choice but to confront the contradictions of his mercurial life.