It would be hard to think of anyone whose portrayal in the media differs more radically from the reality than that of Justice Clarence Thomas.
His recent appearances on 60 Minutes, the Rush Limbaugh program, and other media outlets provide the general public with their first in-depth look at the real Clarence Thomas.
These media appearances are part of the promotion of his riveting new memoir, titled My Grandfather’s Son. Otherwise, Justice Thomas would probably have continued to confine himself to doing his work at the Supreme Court, without worrying about what was being said about him in the media.
In an era when too many judges, including justices of the Supreme Court, seem to be playing to the media gallery — if not writing opinions or leaking information with an eye toward favorable coverage in the press — Justice Thomas’s refusal to play that game tells us a lot about him.
His memoir tells us more. Born in material poverty beyond anything experienced even by people on welfare today, Clarence Thomas was raised with an abundance of discipline and character-building that would pay off in later life.
This was largely the work of his grandfather, who raised him, and whom he now calls “the greatest man I have ever known.” But that was not his view at the time, when he was a child.
His grandfather, however, was not preoccupied — like so many modern parents — with how the children see things. He took his role as a parent to be to see things that children could not see, including challenges that they would encounter in later life.
The metamorphosis of Clarence Thomas went through many phases — from altar boy to seminary student to a campus radical and racial militant, before eventually coming full circle back to the values his grandfather taught him and an understanding of the law and society that he acquired on his own.
But, by the time I first met him, in 1978, he had already reached the same conclusions on his own that I had reached.
Those conclusions were probably more firmly grasped because they were his own, rather than something he read by somebody else.
Clarence Thomas’s own experiences shocked him into a realization that “affirmative action” and other policies being pushed by civil rights organizations and by liberals generally were doing more harm than good, both to blacks and to American society.
In an era when so many people have neither the time nor the patience to examine arguments and evidence, critics have tried to dismiss Clarence Thomas as someone who “sold out” in order to advance himself.
In reality, he was in far worse financial condition than if he had taken the opposite positions on political issues.
As late as the time of his nomination to the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas’s net worth — everything he had accumulated over a lifetime — was less than various civil rights “leaders” make in one year.
Nobody sells out to the lowest bidder.
The other great myth about Justice Thomas is that he is a lonely and embittered man, withdrawn from the world, as a result of the brutal confirmation hearings he went through back in 1991.
Clarence Thomas was never a social butterfly. You didn’t see his name in the society pages or at media events, either before he got on the High Court or afterward.
In reality, Justice Thomas has been all over the place, giving talks, especially to young people, and inviting some of them to his offices at the Supreme Court.
Summers find him driving his own bus all around the country, mixing with people at truck stops, trailer parks and mall parking lots. The fact that he is not out grandstanding for the media does not mean that he is hunkering down in his cellar.
Clarence Thomas’s sense of humor is terrific. Whenever I am on the phone with someone and laughing repeatedly, my wife usually asks me afterward, “Was that Clarence?” It usually is.
Now, thanks to his book, the public can get to know the man himself, rather than the cardboard image created by the media.
All that many people know about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are the accusations against him by Anita Hill during his confirmation hearings in 1991.
However, such subsequent events as the “rape” accusations against Duke University students last year and, before that, a similar hoax in the Tawana Brawley case, have belatedly demonstrated how mindless it is to automatically accept accusations, as many in the media did with Anita Hill.
Now, with the recent publication of My Grandfather’s Son, Anita Hill has surfaced again in the media to repeat her accusations.
The time is long overdue to take a hard look at hard facts, so that we can put those accusations in the garbage can, where they belong.
The first of these hard facts is that, contrary to what has been repeated so often in the media, it was not just a question of what “he said” versus what “she said.”
A whole phalanx of female witnesses who had worked with both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill came out in support of him at his confirmation hearings.
One of those witnesses went out of her way to point out that the image that Anita Hill projected on television bore no resemblance to the behavior and attitudes of either Anita Hill or Clarence Thomas that she had seen with her own eyes.
On the other side, one witness backed up Anita Hill’s story by saying that she had been told the same things by Anita Hill when they both lived in Washington.
But then the fact came out that this star witness had left Washington before Anita Hill went to work for Clarence Thomas, so there was no way that her corroboration could be true.
There were ways in which different versions of events by Hill and Thomas were quite capable of being checked — but were not checked.
That failure to check the facts was very strange in a situation where so much depended on the credibility of the two people. Here are the two versions.
According to Clarence Thomas, he hired Anita Hill at the urging of a friend because an official of the law firm at which she worked had advised her to leave.
According to Ms. Hill — both then and now — she was not “asked to leave” the law firm but was “in good standing” at the time.
This too was not just a question of “he said” and “she said.” An affidavit sworn by a former partner in that law firm supported Clarence Thomas’s version. That was ignored by most of the media.
Since the Senate has the power of subpoena, it was suggested that they issue a subpoena to get the law firm’s records, since that could provide a clue as to the credibility of the two people.
Senators opposed to the nomination of Judge Thomas voted down that request for the issuance of a subpoena.
After Anita Hill’s accusations, a group of female members of Congress staged a melodramatic march up the Capitol steps, with the TV cameras rolling, demanding that the Senate “get to the bottom of this.”
But “getting to the bottom of this” apparently did not include issuing a subpoena that could have shown conclusively who was truthful and who was not.
In another instance, there was already hard evidence but it too was ignored. Clarence Thomas said that Anita Hill had initiated a number of phone calls to him, over the years, after she had left the agency where they both worked. She said otherwise. But a phone log from the agency showed that he was right.
The really fatal fact about Anita Hill’s accusations was that they were first made to the Senate Judiciary Committee in confidence, and she asked that her name not be mentioned when the accusations were presented to Judge Thomas by those trying to pressure him to withdraw his nomination to the Supreme Court.
Think about it: The accusations referred to things that were supposed to have happened when only two people were present.
If the accusations were true, Clarence Thomas would automatically know who originated them. Anita Hill’s request for anonymity made sense only if the charges were false.
Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. He has published dozens of books on economics, education, race, and other topics. His most recent book is his memoir A Man of Letters.