For someone who seems to revel in being silent during the Supreme Court’s traditionally lively oral arguments – when a public display of his professional competence would be appropriate – Clarence Thomas’s out-of-court comments are extraordinarily revealing. They show a man whose exalted position has brought him no inner peace, a man who continues to see himself as being victimized by this or that person or cabal.
Last week, it came to light that during an early-April interview with C-SPAN, Thomas tried to diminish President Obama’s achievements. Asked about Obama’s being the nation’s first Black president, Thomas said, “I always knew that it would have to be a Black president who was approved by the elites and the media because anybody that they didn’t agree with, they would take apart.”
He went on to say “that will happen with virtually, you pick your person, any Black person who says something that is not the prescribed things that they expect from a Black person will be picked apart. You can pick anybody, don’t pick me, pick anyone who has decided not to go along with it. There’s a price to pay. So I always assumed it would be somebody the media had to agree with.”
Thomas didn’t identify which “elites” and which “media” he was referring to.
But presumably the latter doesn’t include Fox News or the Wall Street Journal and other conservative-leaning newspapers and publications nor the innumerable conservative pundits and talk-show jockeys that have been hammering Obama since he won the Democratic nomination in 2008.
And presumably the elites don’t include the long-list of wealthy conservative elites who’ve spent millions upon millions opposing the president’s initiatives and his re-election. But then, Clarence Thomas has never been one to let facts undermine his raging self-pity.
We’ve seen this facet of Thomas’s character ever since he used that ugly phrase, “high tech lynching,” during his 1991 Senate confirmation hearings. That phrase came from a man who had become a conservative favorite by asserting that Black liberals always unjustifiably blamed racism for Black Americans’ troubles.
We later learned by his own words that that self-pity had long been a part of his character, when he revealed that all through college and law school he never voluntarily spoke up in class because he felt classmates would make fun of his deep Southern accent.
One need not have gone to an elite college and law school, as Thomas did, nor be a psychiatrist, to have immediately considered that Thomas neither got over his embarrassment about his accent nor sought out a language specialist to help him get rid of it precisely because he wanted to hold onto it – the better to feed his seeing himself as a victim.
In fact, Thomas’s attempt to diminish the president just underscores what they have – and don’t have – in common.
Both men are products of elite colleges and law schools. But while Thomas hid behind a self-perceived “defect,” Barack Obama took an active role in the life of the institutions he attended. At Harvard, he sought and won membership on the law review, and then, the approval of the review’s members to be their president.
Clarence Thomas drew no job offers from law firms when he graduated in 1974. He’s claimed this was the result of the “taint” of affirmative action. But numerous articles over the years have shown that Thomas’s Black Yale Law peers have a decidedly different view of their experience.
One such article, in The American Lawyer, of June 2, 2008, “Did Affirmative Action Really Hinder Clarence Thomas?,” available on the web site Law.com, should be required reading. It found “in interviews with a dozen African-American lawyers who attended Yale in the same years” that they described their Yale experience “in largely positive – even glowing – terms.”
The most striking contrast between Clarence Thomas and Barack Obama, of course, is what they’ve done after law school.
Thomas, taken up by then-Senator John Danforth, a Missouri Republican, shortly after graduation, has been a government appointee his entire adult career – while declaring that Blacks as a group are too dependent on the government. With, at best, minimal qualifications he was appointed to the two most prestigious positions in the federal judiciary, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and less than two years later, the Supreme Court.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, spurned lucrative offers from law firms and potential federal court clerkships, to become a community organizer in Chicago. There, he began his career of standing for elective office at the local, statewide, and national level. His galvanic speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention instantly made him a future presidential contender. He won the presidency twice in the toughest kind of combat outside of actual warfare by out-thinking and out-organizing his Republican opposition to garner the approval of millions of voters.
Personal and professional jealousy is always unseemly – the more so in a Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York Ciry. His most recent book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.