The Magazine

Read This Book

Clarence Thomas's memoir is almost as important a contribution to his beloved country as his work as a Supreme Court justice.

Oct 15, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 05 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

At the most recent Democratic presidential debate, Tim Russert asked the candidates to name their favorite Bible verse. The answers tended toward the unexceptionable--including the Sermon on the Mount (not a "verse," but who's counting?) and the Golden Rule. Watching the debate, I idly wondered how I'd respond.

Upon a bit of reflection, I think my answer would be Numbers 10:35, one of the verses read in synagogue on Saturday in preparation for the reading from the Torah. When the ark is opened, revealing the Torah scrolls, the congregation stands, as the Israelites stood at the base of Mt. Sinai, and chants the verse: "When the ark was carried forward, Moses would say, 'Arise, Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, may Your foes be put to flight.'" For some reason, this has always been one of my favorite moments in the service.

I don't know if Clarence Thomas has ever attended a Shabbat service, but I suspect he might like this verse too. Not because he's consumed by "rage" or because of his "roiling state of mind," as unfriendly commentators have claimed in the week since the publication of his memoir, My Grandfather's Son. In fact, the book, like the man, is remarkably calm, though it recounts times of justified anger, legitimate rage, and understandable roiling. But Thomas understands that he does have enemies, who stooped very low indeed to try to bring him down. And he has called on the Lord for strength to help him scatter them and put them to flight.

Thomas cites Scripture at key points in My Grandfather's Son. He writes that during the crucible of his Supreme Court confirmation fight, "It was in the consoling words of the prophet Isaiah that I found my own watchword: 'But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles: they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.'" And he closes the book with his prayer as he joins the Court: "Lord, grant me the wisdom to know what is right and the courage to do it. Amen."

Wisdom and courage: These are the themes of My Grandfather's Son. Thomas offers an education in practical wisdom and moral courage. Particularly instructive, and moving, is the portrait of his grandfather, Myers Anderson, who raised Thomas after his own father abandoned him as a toddler. Anderson was hard-working, upstanding, stern, and iron-willed. He made it possible for Thomas to grow up, to succeed, to become a man. He concealed his love for the boy out of fear that showing softness would undercut the discipline necessary to instill in his grandson a character strong enough to survive and flourish in a difficult world. His character building worked. But his iron will and forbidding demeanor made it hard for Thomas, as a young man, to get along with him.

One of the most gripping passages in the book is Thomas's account of what turned out to be his last meeting with his grandfather. His grandmother was in the hospital, and after Thomas had visited with her, he had "a wonderful talk, the best we'd ever had," with his grandfather. Afterward they embraced, "the first and only time in our lives we did so." Thomas hoped this might set the stage for a new and more intimate relationship with this man he revered, but he would never see him alive again.

Earlier, Thomas had described his grandfather's indulgent treatment of Thomas's son Jamal. "As far as Daddy [Thomas's grandfather] was concerned, Jamal could do no wrong." Thomas posed the question: "Tell me something, Daddy, you never make Jamal do anything he doesn't want to do. You let him do whatever he wants. You do whatever he asks you to do. But you never treated [my brother] and me that way. Why not?" His grandfather replied, "Jamal is not my responsibility."

As Thomas comments, "It really was as simple as that. Daddy had to raise us, but he only had to enjoy Jamal, so he kissed and hugged him." And Thomas goes on to wonder "how hard it had been for him to hide his affection from us. How often had he looked in on my brother and me as we slept, gazing at us with the same sweetness I saw each time he looked at Jamal? How often had he longed to hold us, hug us, grant our every wish, but held himself back for fear of letting us see his vulnerability, believing as he did that real love demanded not affection but discipline?"

Thomas's memoir raises fundamental questions of love and responsibility, family and character. His book is a brief for the stern and vigorous virtues, but in a context of faith and love. It's a delightful book--you really can't put it down--but it's also a source of moral education for young Americans. It could be almost as important a contribution to his beloved country as Clarence Thomas's work as a Supreme Court justice. And it suggests one more contribution he could make. Thomas in 2012!

--William Kristol