WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Ah, irony of ironies! The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has voted to block the advancement of a colored person. Judge Clarence Thomas might laugh if it didn't hurt so much.
Thus the lynch mob assembles. Judge Thomas' nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court now faces opposition from the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union and the People for the Unamerican Way.
Some nincompoop film director has called him ''a handkerchief head, a chicken-and-biscuit-eating Uncle Tom.'' The black dean of a law school has termed him a counterfeit hero. The only ones who support Mr. Thomas are the people. They know character when they see it.
This is roughly the same gaggle of ultra-liberals who lynched Bob Bork four years ago. I don't believe it will work this time around, in part because of the different personalities of the two men.
Something about Judge Bork scared the Senate. He looked like Mephistopheles and he spoke like a tough professor, and he was more than the Senate wanted to handle.
By contrast, Judge Thomas is a friendly fellow. Big smile. Firm handshake. He has the inner toughness of a man who came up the hard way from Pin Point, Ga., but he has the social graces that make for easy conversation.
My guess is that he will disarm his inquisitors when the Judiciary Committee considers his nomination next month.
What motivates the lynch mob? It is surely not his race. At the highest levels of government, being black is an asset, rather like having veteran's preference on a civil service examination.
No, it is not that Clarence Thomas is black, but that he is the wrong kind of black: He is a conservative black. He has a mind of his own. He looks at programs of affirmative action, and he thinks about them.
In the eyes of the NAACP, he thinks too much; such men are dangerous. Thurgood Marshall, former general counsel to the NAACP, could be relied upon to vote the liberal line on civil rights. But Mr. Thomas is not in the NAACP's pocket.
It is objected that Mr. Thomas is ''inexperienced.'' If time on the bench were all that mattered, the objection could be sustained. The nominee has served only 16 months on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. But he has other credits in public service, and he has the black experience. This has to be taken into account, just as it was taken into account when Mr. Marshall was nominated 24 years ago.
In a moment of mean-spirited candor, Justice William O. Douglas remarked in his autobiography that ''Marshall was named simply because he was black, and in the 1960s that was reason enough.''
The same reality exists today. George Bush cannot be taken seriously when he describes Mr. Thomas as the ''best'' possible nominee for the court. On paper, or in a political vacuum, a hundred better-qualified prospects could be named. But it is politically prudent and socially important to have the black experience reflected on our highest court, and Clarence Thomas is the best exponent of the black experience that a conservative Republican president could find.
Nothing is wrong -- and certainly nothing is novel -- in that approach to high court nominations. These nominations have zTC been ''political,'' in one sense or another, since George Washington packed the first court with stout Federalists one and all.
During the 19th century, geographical selection was paramount. Religion has been an unspoken factor in a ''Catholic seat'' and a ''Jewish seat.'' Does anyone doubt that when Sandra Day O'Connor leaves the court, another woman will be named to succeed her? This is the way the world is.
The most recent dust storm blown up by the lynch mob has to do with ''natural law'' and ''natural rights.'' Professor Laurence Tribe, in an uncommonly silly piece for the New York Times, speaks of Mr. Thomas' ''adherence'' to natural law. Mr. Tribe fears that Mr. Thomas ''might'' do this, and ''seems'' to believe that, and finally concludes that Mr. Thomas sees natural law ''as the lodestone of constitutional interpretation.''
This is mediocre rubbish, far below Professor Tribe's usually high quality rubbish. Divine law, whatever that is, is one thing; constitutional law, whatever that is, is something else. On the record of his circuit court opinions, Thomas is no starry-eyed judicial activist, searching the heavens for God's opinion on the meaning of ''liberty'' in the 14th Amendment. He doesn't ''adhere'' to natural law. He adheres to the sound doctrine of judicial restraint. Bring the rope!
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.