TV viewers will get a display of Thomas' personality Senate questioning may draw him out THOMAS HEARINGS

September 10, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- By soap-opera time this afternoon, television watchers will begin to hear the first significant words from Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in his public effort to persuade a majority of the Senate to vote to put him on the court.

What he says as he makes his initial statement will start to show how much the nominee and his supporters on the committee intend to rely on his personal story -- the tale of his seriously deprived childhood and how he grew beyond it -- to set the tone of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.

Hearings like this one constitute one of the national government's most serious kinds of public business. But this particular nomination, and the hearings over it, have already taken on a kind of made-for-TV character. Thus, this week's TV fare from the Senate may be as hotly emotional as it is coolly philosophical -- if not more so.

The poignant view of Judge Thomas two months ago, holding back tears as he talked of his background after being nominated by President Bush, has provided a summer-long backdrop to the developing fight over his views and his qualifications.

Mr. Bush himself, and strategists for Mr. Thomas in and out of government, have emphasized repeatedly the nominee's up-by-his-own-bootstraps story as a vivid counterpoint to the often scholarly, sometimes arcane debate that his challengers have been trying to stir up over his conservative constitutional philosophy.

The presence of the TV cameras seems to ensure that the viewer will see a more or less constant effort to keep it interesting, no matter how deep some senators may wish the philosophical questioning to go. And that could give Judge Thomas an advantage, since the senators may have real difficulty pinning him down tightly on any issue.

The format of the hearings does not lend itself to a penetrating inquisition. Each senator will get 10 minutes, at a time, to ask questions. There may be little time to follow up any line of inquiry, even if it appeared to be getting somewhere.

Moreover, the questioning alternates by senators' party. So, if a Democrat does succeed in starting to press or perhaps even to embarrass Judge Thomas, a Republican will soon be available for a rescue effort. Moreover, some Republicans on the committee are likely to ask long questions, to give Judge Thomas a chance to catch his breath or collect his wits.

Many of Judge Thomas' supporters, including Mr. Bush, have insisted that it is improper for senators to try to pin him down on issues that might come before the Supreme Court. It is widely assumed, therefore, that he has been coached repeatedly to avoid explicit answers to specific questions probing his views.

Some Democrats on the committee, nevertheless, will try to get specific and to force Mr. Thomas to do

so, too -- especially on abortion and on women's rights. Although many senators would like to know in detail how he feels about the constitutional rights of blacks and other minorities, they now appear hesitant to go too far with those inquiries, for fear of reviving the "quota" issue that Democratic politicians find threatening.

Although some members of the committee, such as Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, may ask Mr. Thomas point-blank about his views on abortion, most of the senators' questions about that subject are likely to be phrased in the language of a constitutional right of privacy.

And, this time, even the language of privacy rights may grow even more obscure, because Judge Thomas' perceptions on that subject are likely to be tested through questions about his support of "natural law" philosophy.

Senators will thus have the task of first getting answers on natural law, then having that translated into conclusions about privacy rights, and then perhaps to reveal at least hints about abortion.

There may well be high drama, especially if Judge Thomas at any point is badgered and starts fighting back. He is known, by his close associates, to have a considerably more vivid personality than last year's supremely reserved nominee -- Justice David H. Souter -- and may well turn out to be more combative.

Although on opening day today Mr. Thomas will have to wait hours to say something (each of the 14 members of the committee gets to make a speech first), he will be the center of attention once he starts talking and answering questions.

He is expected to be on the stand from midafternoon today until early evening. Then, tomorrow and other days this week, he will be questioned from 10 a.m. to 6 or 6:30 p.m. -- with breaks for Senate roll-calls, personal time and lunch.

Although challenging moments could come for him at any point in the hearing day, a critical time for observing his demeanor could be late in the day, when fatigue might be setting in, and the chance of more serious verbal missteps increases.

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