Judiciary

The Purging of Justice Thomas

Sixteen years after his agonizing confirmation to the Supreme Court, Thomas had to pull this festering splinter: He would write the pain out of his system. Now! Done! But pus is pretty only to the patient.

In an engrossing account of his boyhood in Pinpoint, Ga., Thomas starts with his hardscrabble beginnings:

"I was 9 years old when I met my father. His name was M.C. Thomas, and my birth certificate describes him as a ‘laborer.’"

The meeting took place at a housing project where the father was visiting. Thomas and his younger brother arrived on schedule:

"’I am your daddy,’ he told us in a firm, shameless voice that carried no hint of remorse for his inexplicable absence from our lives. He said nothing about loving or missing us, and we didn’t say much in return — it was as though we were meeting a total stranger — but he treated us politely enough, and even promised to send us a pair of Elgin watches with flexible bands, which were popular at the time. Though we watched the mail every day, the watches never came."

In the 1950s, Pinpoint, 10 miles southeast of Savannah, "was too small to be properly called a town. No more than a hundred people lived there, most of whom were related to me in one way or another. Their lives were a daily struggle for the barest of essentials, food, clothing and shelter. Doctors were few and far between, so when you got sick, you stayed that way, and often you died of it.

"The house in which I was born was a shanty with no bathroom and no electricity except for a single light in the living room. Kerosene lamps lit the rest of the house. In the wintertime we plugged up the cracks and holes in the walls with old newspapers. Water came from a nearby faucet. We carried it through the woods in old lard buckets …"

Readers who skip the middle chapters of Thomas’ memoir do themselves a disservice. Eventually his race would become the decisive factor in his career, but along the way he provided evidence of real guts and modest talent. Then came his rise to become chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), his elevation to a circuit judgeship, and finally in the summer of 1991 his nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States.

If Thomas had ended his memoir at that point he would have had a good book but no bonanza. For his own integrity — and to earn that fat advance — he had publicly to squeeze the festering boil. Without the final 50 pages there would have been no marketable book. So, Anita Hill had defamed him. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had listened to her lies. He was fed up:

"This is a circus. It is a national disgrace, and from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched."

Permit me a personal word: My beloved wife, Hearst columnist Marianne Means, has a very different view of Justice Thomas and his book. Last week she characterized his memoir as 289 pages of whine. In her biased view, Anita Hill was a Teller of Truth, a veritable Joan of Arc.

In my own biased view, Hill was a vengeful woman who was determined to get back at a man who clearly thought she was less than wonderful. She has never been able to explain why she followed Thomas — this beast, this awful person, this tawdry, hyper-sexed, utterly detestable creep! — from one job to another. But let it go. To each his own catharsis.

I wish Thomas had not published this book. Now can I go to sleep?


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