I’m not usually one to enjoy contemporary autobiographies. They tend to have an agenda. They tend not to be warts-and-all self-portrayals. They tend to be superficial, boring and self-serving.
Clarence Thomas’ "My Grandfather’s Son," is a rare exception to all the stereotypes — and I mean all of them.
I’ll be honest with you; I liked Clarence Thomas before I read this book. If I had named the 10 living people I most admire in the world, he certainly would have been on the list. And, no, I don’t know him — never had the good fortune of meeting him.
But now, after reading this memoir, my appreciation for the man is so much deeper. It provides so much more insight into his heart, his mind and his soul. It’s full of great stories and anecdotes about others, too.
When Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, an intellectual lightweight, asked Thomas about his views on natural law, the judge decided to have fun with him. Instead of that turkey sandwich you’re eating, asked Thomas, would you consider having a human being sandwich? "That’s Natural Law 101," he explained.
Before the confirmation hearings, Sen. Howell Heflin kept calling Thomas in for interview after interview. Soon, says Thomas, he figured out what was up. Heflin had to find a reason to vote against him.
"(Sen.) Bob Packwood, on the other hand, was direct: he said that he liked me, agreed with me on many things that I had said, and thought that I would be a fine member of the Court, but that he couldn’t vote for me because his political career depended on support from the same women’s groups that were opposing my nomination," Thomas writes.
And how about Al Gore? "(Sen.) Al Gore was equally candid when a friend of mine approached him, saying that he’d vote for me if he decided not to run for president," Thomas recalls. "Strange as it may sound, I appreciated that kind of honesty. It took a certain amount of courage for these senators to admit their real reasons for voting against me instead of making up some transparent excuse."
Mainly, however, this is not a political book; it’s a touching portrait of what Thomas owes to his grandparents — particularly his stern grandfather, who raised him and his brother for most of their young lives.
Once, his grandfather asked him why he had become a Republican. Thomas answered that the Democrats no longer represented the things his grandfather had taught him.
He had no clue how his mother voted until the famous Senate confirmation hearings when Sens. Patrick Leahy, Metzenbaum, Joe Biden, Paul Simon and Teddy Kennedy all lined up against her son.
"Never before had I seen her as angry as she was in the fall of 1991," he writes. "All her life she’d assumed that Democrats in Washington were sensible leaders — but now she saw these men as single-issue zealots who were unwilling to treat her son fairly."
She said: "I ain’t never votin’ fo’ another Democrat long as I can draw breath. I’d vote for a dog first."
"My Grandfather’s Son" is an inspirational story. After reading about Clarence Thomas’ rise from a fatherless broken home, where breakfast consisted of cereal and watered-down condensed milk and where there was no running water and no indoor plumbing, to the U.S. Supreme Court, your faith in the American dream will be rekindled.
If you remember those hearings, if you were around and conscious in 1991, if you were involved in that national debate, you will enjoy reliving it through the eyes of the man at the center of that storm.
Get to know the real Clarence Thomas; give "My Grandfather’s Son" a try.