Strange Justice

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As the legal scholar Stephen Carter has noted, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill are, to current generations, what Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers were for those who came of age during the early years of the Cold War. The facts of the Thomas-Hill imbroglio are as politically charged and seemingly contradictory as were those surrounding the Hiss-Chambers case. In both instances, while it seems certain that one of the parties is a perjurer, deciphering who is innocent and who is guilty remains a nebulous business. The very ambiguity of each case, however, contributes to the strong partisanship both inspire. It seems impossible not to choose sides.

Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, both seasoned journalists associated with The Wall Street Journal, explore their subject with reportorial objectivity, but they, too, finally convey a clear impression that Thomas was lying and Hill badly mistreated. In part, this seeming bias may be a by-product of the fact that while Hill granted Mayer and Abramson the first full-length interview she has given since the confirmation hearings, Justice Thomas declined their repeated requests for an interview. (Hill’s acquiescence perhaps was motivated by a desire to respond to David Brock’s best-selling 1993 attack on her, The Real Anita Hill.) In the main, however, Mayer and Abramson seem to have arrived at their conclusions because their investigations uncovered a surfeit of evidence that the hearings, far from being a probe of a potential Supreme Court justice’s fitness, were so orchestrated by conservative interests as to amount to the “selling of Clarence Thomas.”

Mayer and Abramson devote a good deal of attention to Thomas’ compelling biography—the story of how an impoverished black boy from rural Pin Point, Georgia, pulled himself up by his bootstraps—but they also are at pains to show how this story was manipulated by Thomas’ handlers into the “Pin Point strategy.” Thomas’ status as one of the few outspokenly conservative African American professionals in Washington made for rapid advancement during the Reagan and Bush eras. Thomas began his ascent in 1979, when he was made one of Senator John C. Danforth’s legislative assistants. A year later, Thomas joined the Reagan Administration, heading the tran- sition team at the EEOC. His reward for that service was, first, appointment as assis- tant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education and, nine months later, advancement to the chairmanship of the EEOC.

There was a fundamental paradox at the heart of this career: Thomas garnered the attention of the Republican administration because of the very public stance he had taken against such policies as affirmative action—precisely those he was charged with enforcing at the Department of Education and the EEOC. Another contradiction concerned his alleged treatment of his aide at the Department of Education and the EEOC, Anita Hill. If Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment are to be believed, Thomas had real contempt for the laws he was charged with enforcing, behaving as if he were somehow above them.

Unfortunately for Thomas, he had by this time left a considerable record of peccadillos and firmly held beliefs that were at odds with the persona he needed to project in order to achieve his ultimate goal: replacing Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. An interim step, appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in March of 1990, did not involve much remodeling. After Justice Marshall resigned from the Supreme Court a little more than a year later, however, the Republicans mounted a rehabilitation of Thomas’ image with the kind of all-out effort customarily reserved for prominent political campaigns.

The fundamental scheme was to highlight Thomas’s life story and downplay both his relative lack of judicial qualifications and his espousal of a right-wing agenda. Nominating Thomas on July 1, 1991, in Kennebunkport, Maine, President Bush managed to pull off the former—shedding a tear during Thomas’ autobiographical acceptance speech—but bungled the latter, calling Thomas the...

(The entire section is 1696 words.)