Opinion split more on ideological issues than racial lines as people assessed Clarence Thomas, a black federal judge who is President Bush's nominee to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court.
Standing by Bush's side yesterday during a press conference in Kennebunkport, Maine, an emotional Thomas said, "Only in America could this have been possible." Thomas said he looked forward to the confirmation process "and to be an example to those who are where I was, and to show them that, indeed, there is hope."
Thomas declined to answer questions about his legal views until his hearings.
Thomas is Bush's second nominee to the nation's highest court, and like Justice David Souter, he will benefit from having a moderate Republican senator to guide him through the process.
Conservatives generally applauded the Thomas nomination. Liberals deplored it. And Bush was in the catbird seat.
"The president in this instance gets his chance to have his cake and eat it, too," Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, said yesterday.
"Simply because he's appointed a person of color to the bench, he's free of the charge that he's insensitive," Mfume said. "And at the same time, he's appointed a person who is probably more conservative than some of the people who were being suggested. He recognizes if Mr. Thomas is not confirmed, it is not because he did not nominate a black person."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a conservative Utah Republican, said Thomas is highly qualified.
"He is fair-minded, he is a sensitive individual," Hatch said. "He is also very tough and independent. He is very much his own man -- very much like Justice Marshall."
That was not an assessment many liberals agreed with.
"Judge Marshall brought to the court magnificence," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, "excellence, commitment to civil rights, civil liberties, workers' rights, women's rights, inclusion, expansion.
"And unless Judge Thomas can change, he does not represent that tradition," Jackson said.
Jackson, sometime liberal Democratic presidential candidate, stood in the receiving line with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke at the mayor's fund-raiser yesterday at the Center Club. Jackson was in Baltimore to address the convention of the Missionaries of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Thomas has not been a federal judge very long, Jackson said, and he had some rocky days on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Thomas, an ardent conservative and an outspoken critic of racial quotas, spent eight stormy years as EEOC chairman. He has been a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for 15 months.
"He must be asked a lot of questions," Jackson said. "After all, the court is swinging dangerously to the right, with narrow views that are almost an extension of Republican politics, as opposed to being that of jurists who sit above the political systems.
"It seems," he said, "it's more and more a stacked court, which is not in the best interest of America or the best interest of the court."
Mfume, who was also in Schmoke's receiving line at the Center Club, said he was disappointed with, but not surprised by, the Thomas nomination.
"As long as we continue to elect conservative presidents, we're going to get conservative Supreme Court nominees," Mfume said. "It's just a fact of life."
It's the president's call, he said.
"We live in the kind of world where to the victor goes the spoils," Mfume said. "Unfortunately, he got two nominations to the Supreme Court in his first term -- neither of which represent the ideals that I think are important.
"I think the court, being the court of last resolve, must in every way possible hold the trust of the people of this land.
"If the court is too far to the right or too far to the left, it chips away at that kind of integrity.
"And that's my fear," Mfume said. "We just need balance and I would have preferred a much more moderate Republican.
"People need to believe that there's balance in this court and that you can go there and get equal justice under the law."
Nobody's going to fill the shoes of Marshall, Mfume said.
"Clarence Thomas represents to some people a political oddity," he said. "He is a person of African ancestry who is extremely conservative in his interpretation of social law and social doctrine. That is going to be interesting to explain in the confirmation process."
Schmoke knew Thomas when they were both at Yale University. Thomas is 43, Schmoke 41.
"But I got to know him much better after I worked in Washington a while and we had some mutual friends," said the mayor, who worked in the Carter administration. "You can like somebody on the personal side without getting into the professional issues."
Thomas' "paper credentials" are fine, Schmoke said.
"I've never seen any president appoint anybody who just on paper was not qualified," he said.