Thomas prepares to run gantlets of friends, foes

August 04, 1991|By Lyle Denniston and Karen Hosler | Lyle Denniston and Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Now that Clarence Thomas has finished with most if not all of the planned glad-handing with the Senate, the Supreme Court nominee will switch to a nearly full-time role of student, cramming for tests far tougher than any he took at Yale Law School.

There will be two legal exams over the next two months, both almost certain to be grueling: one that he doesn't have to pass, and a second that he absolutely has to pass, probably with a "B" or better, to assure himself of becoming a justice.

The aim of both rounds of interrogation is to test Clarence Thomas, to push him as hard as he can be pushed. The first will test whether he is ready to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee; the second -- by that committee -- will test whether he is ready for a promotion from a federal circuit court to the Supreme Court.

The first will be by his friends, acting like his enemies; that one is called (not inappropriately, it seems) a "murder board." The second will be by his potential enemies, acting like his friends; that is the one that truly counts -- the senators' quiz at Judiciary Committee hearings, now due to start Sept. 10.

All of this is a part of the now-routine process of preparing a nominee to the nation's highest court: a process that, for Judge Thomas, has meant his every move for a month has been plotted as much as possible in advance and has been watched over with the closest scrutiny by "handlers" who work in or for the White House.

But for the next few weeks, in Phase 2 of the process, Judge Thomas will be spending a lot of time by himself. He will be digging deeply into thick notebooks, filled with legal lore along with ideas for avoiding question-and-answer pitfalls and testimonial pratfalls. He has about a month to read, study, perhaps memorize before the first sitting of his "murder board" -- and the resumption of the process of managing and "packaging" him.

The "murder board," made up of government and private lawyers, will do everything it can to embarrass him, trip him up -- and educate him. It will all be unseen by the public, however; all sessions will be behind closed doors, and no transcript is ever likely to get out.

Then-Circuit Judge Robert H. Bork, the Supreme Court nominee rejected four years ago after a Senate hearing performance that turned out to have cost him votes, was not much taken with the idea of a "murder board."

Analyzing later the fight over his nomination, Mr. Bork in a book sarcastically called the "murder board" a "quaint White House institution with the reassuring name." The board functioned in his case, he wrote, "rather in the manner that a trainer repeatedly throws a medicine ball at a boxer's solar plexus."

He went before his board once, and more sessions with it were planned, "but I found the experience not terribly useful, since I was not concerned about withstanding brutality, and called the rest off." The questioning, he said, was "savage."

Even if the "murder board" is "quaint" and sometimes not useful, it may well be a permanent part of the catechism for a Supreme Court nominee -- a process that has been raised almost to an art form and that has given rise to a thriving cottage industry here.

The "industry" is composed of a shifting team of "handlers" and strategists from inside the government and outside, who do next to nothing else while the "prepping" goes forward. It has dealt with eight Supreme Court nominees over the past 10 years -- all appointees of Republican presidents. (Democratic administrations, whose last nominee was Justice Thurgood Marshall 24 years ago, did less preparation; the process, however, has existed in one form or another since Felix Frankfurter became the first nominee to appear before a Senate committee, in 1939. Before then, the Senate voted on a president's nominee with no interviews.)

In the 10 years of the Reagan and Bush administrations, six of the eight nominees to go through some or all of the "prepping" routine ultimately won Senate approval. One -- Mr. Bork -- was defeated, and one -- Circuit Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg -- dropped out after a disclosure that he had smoked marijuana in the past (something that Judge Thomas has done, too; senators no longer seem to view it as a disqualifying experience if use was infrequent).

The nominee at the time becomes the sole preoccupation of that industry. And the nominee soon discovers -- as Judge Thomas has -- that the process takes nearly all of his time, most of his energies and a good measure of his patience.

A candidate for the seat on the highest bench has to withstand almost as much scrutiny, and weather as much heavy strategizing and lightweight small talk, as any serious presidential candidate -- all the while trying to say nothing hurtful to his cause and to keep smiling beatifically.

Judge Thomas' trash at home has been gone through by reporters, and his first wife has been pressed for details of their divorce. Neither inquiry, it seems, turned up usable dirt.

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