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’ 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.
One sign of where he was in his radical and militant phase was that, when someone gave him a book of mine to read, he threw it in the trash basket.
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’ 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’ 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’ 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.