White House launches PR campaign for Thomas

July 16, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun Lyle Denniston of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this story.

WASHINGTON -- Facing a steady barrage of criticism from opponents of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, the White House has launched a campaign-style public relations counteroffensive on his behalf.

The Bush administration wants to feed the news media a steady diet of pro-Thomas stories to counter the almost daily stream of negative news about the 43-year-old federal judge, an administration aide explained.

Vice President Dan Quayle, an outspoken Thomas supporter, has been given a leading role in the administration's counterattack. On Friday, during a speaking engagement in New York City, he delivered a strong defense of Judge Thomas' background and character.

Yesterday, at a hastily arranged session in the West Wing of the White House, Mr. Quayle posed for pictures with the court nominee after receiving a short progress report from Judge Thomas on his meetings with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is expected to begin confirmation hearings in early September.

"I'm going to continue to take out after Mr. Thomas' critics, because they're wrong," Mr. Quayle said.

Reporters' queries for Judge Thomas during the photo session reflected the growing list of questions about the Georgia-born jurist and the controversy surrounding his nomination. Included were a vote last week by the Congressional Black Caucus opposing his nomination, reports about his 1983 speech praising Black Muslim leader Louis T. Farrakhan, the disclosure that he was admitted as a student to Yale Law School under a quota system for minorities, his reported membership on the advisory board of a conservative journal that takes an anti-abortion slant and recent praise for the judge's conservative views from Louisiana state Representative David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

"David Duke is irrelevant to the confirmation process," remarked Judge Thomas, who refrained from saying much else, preferring to wait until the Senate hearings to present his views.

Administration officials insist they aren't worried that the anti-Thomas forces will be able to derail the nomination, although, as one aide put it, "I don't think anybody would bet their life on this guy getting confirmed at this point."

The PR offensive on behalf of Judge Thomas is being coordinated by Kenneth B. Duberstein, a former top Reagan White House aide; Fred McClure, the chief White House lobbyist; and Justice Department officials. It is designed, aides said, to provide stories favorable to the Bush nominee in an attempt to shape news coverage in the same way that political candidates present a "story of the day" in the heat of a campaign.

"They want to give as good as they get," said a Bush administration official. "As the criticism has stepped up, they're trying not to get rolled."

The administration effort is also an attempt to prevent a repeat of the Senate's rejection of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987.

As criticism of Judge Bork's conservative philosophy swelled that summer, the Reagan White House left the nominee "largely undefended," according to Terry Eastland, a former Justice Department official during the Reagan administration.

Mr. Eastland noted, however, that the Thomas confirmation has yet to draw the level of opposition that Mr. Bork encountered. On the day the Bork nomination was disclosed, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, delivered a scathing attack on the Senate floor. So far with Judge Thomas, no senator has announced opposition.

Mr. Bork himself has commented on the White House performance during the fight for his nomination. In a book he wrote after that fight, he said: "The White House, unprepared for a campaign of this scope and ferocity, did little in the public arena."

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