The Magazine


The Triumph of Justice Clarence Thomas

Aug 30, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 47 • By ANDREW PEYTON THOMAS
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Clarence Thomas is conservatism's man of the decade and everything his enemies feared he would become. After taking some of the hardest, lowest blows ever delivered by the Left, he could easily have crumbled or compromised when he joined the Supreme Court in 1991. Instead, he held his ground. Eight years after his confirmation, Thomas is the most steadfast conservative on the Court. To both of the philosophical camps that battled so fiercely over his nomination, Thomas has shown that he was worth the fight.

Today, conservatives admire Thomas for the moral courage he has displayed, both in his confirmation hearings and in the case law he has authored. Many also see him as a tragic figure, a man whose views, combined with his race, doomed him to a nationally televised humiliation. Yet the manner in which he endured that fate calls to mind the observation that misfortune nobly borne is good fortune. What is often overlooked, furthermore, is the extent of his ultimate triumph. Except for Ronald Reagan, Clarence Thomas is arguably the only major figure in recent American public life to have collided full force with the liberal establishment and emerged the stronger. Newt Gingrich and Kenneth Starr, for example, fared far worse. Thomas, by contrast, can survey the wreckage of political and ideological actors whose encounter with him left them reduced in credibility and power.

Consider feminists and liberal black organizations, the most formidable interest groups to oppose his confirmation. Both were at the acme of their political influence when the hearings began. Both now are in obvious decline, in part because of the fight they picked with Thomas. Feminist leaders held up Anita Hill's dubious last-minute accusations of sexual harassment as establishing a standard that would henceforth disqualify boorish men from high office. Yet the same feminists now apologize for a president whose twenty years of gross sexual misconduct make Hill's assertions look more trivial than ever. This hypocrisy is not lost on the public -- and how could it be, when feminists made the Thomas hearings so memorable?

Old-guard civil rights leaders similarly elevated the Thomas hearings, making them -- along with the Rodney King riots and the O. J. Simpson trial -- one of the defining events of the decade in race relations. But in the end, a majority of blacks supported Thomas's confirmation. In working so feverishly to ruin Thomas, grand old civil rights groups like the NAACP appeared intolerant and hide bound. In the process, they squandered much good will among blacks and whites alike.

Thomas prevailed for the same reason he now prospers on the Court. Instead of buckling or appeasing his adversaries, he defiantly called the proceedings what they manifestly were -- a "high-tech lynching" -- and dared his foes to take their best shot. They did, and he still stands. A weaker man might have been forever intimidated by this clash; history would have remembered him merely as a martyr of the culture wars, a sort of Nathan Hale of modern conservatism. Not Clarence Thomas. In his speeches across the country and, most important, in his jurisprudence, Thomas has staked a credible claim to being nothing less than the leading conservative in America today.

With the Cold War behind us, the most momentous political battles of our time occur in the judiciary, an arena liberals have dominated for 40 years. Those who would carry the conservative banner in the judicial arena need not only guts but a spirit of rebellion. Thomas has both in abundance. Indeed, the critics who insisted on closely scrutinizing his "temperament" during the confirmation process were onto something, for temperament can serve as a rough surrogate for character. His opponents rightly feared a jurist whose commitment to conservative principles was unyielding.

Throughout his life, Thomas had shown the very independence and integrity they dreaded. He grew up black and Catholic in rural Georgia. He matured into a man zealous enough to train for the priesthood, yet autonomous enough to drop out of both the seminary and the Catholic Church after overhearing a white seminarian delight in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Thomas defied the poverty and racism of his youth by attending college in the northeast, at Holy Cross and Yale Law School. His first job out of law school was working for the Republican attorney general of Missouri, John Danforth; he later served in two high-profile posts in the Reagan administration. Thomas, in short, was not a likely recruit for People for the American Way.