Strange Justice

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. In both instances, while it seems certain that one of the parties is a perjurer, deciphering who is innocent and who guilty remains a nebulous business. The very ambiguity of each case, however, contributes to the strong partisanship both inspire.

Mayer and Abramson devote a good deal of attention to Thomas’s compelling biography—the story of how an impoverished African American 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.” The fundamental scheme was to highlight Thomas’ life story and downplay both is relative lack of judicial qualifications and his espousal of a right-wing agenda. After Justice Thurgood Marshall resigned from the Supreme Court, the Republicans mounted a rehabilitation of Thomas’ image with the kind of all-out effort customarily reserved for prominent political campaigns.

Unfortunately for Thomas, he had left a considerable record of peccadilloes that were at odds with the persona he needed to project in order to achieve his goal. Chief among these were complaints by his former aide, Anita Hill, who alleged that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked for him in the federal government. Reports of her charges lay dormant until after the Senate Judiciary Committee split on whether to recommend Thomas to the full Senate. Press leaks mandated a new set of hearings, at which Hill presented her testimony, and Thomas—in a cynical, but successful maneuver—characterized it as part of a “high-tech lynching” meant to derail the appointment of a conservative black jurist to the Court.

Thomas was confirmed, but the controversy about the process of his confirmation continues. The Thomas-Hill drama constitutes a morality play for the times.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. November 13, 1994, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. November 21, 1994, p. 12.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 13, 1994, p. 2.

The Nation. CCLIX, December 12, 1994, p. 730.

The New Republic. CCXI, December 19, 1994, p. 27.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, November 20, 1994, p. 15.

The New Yorker. LXX, December 12, 1994, p. 9.

Newsweek. CXXIV, November 14, 1994, p. 52.

Time. CXLIV, November 14, 1994, p. 101.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, November 20, 1994, p. 1.