WASHINGTON — Washington. -- For the many who apparently cannot make up their minds about Clarence Thomas, here is a helpful tip:
Look carefully at the photo of Judge Thomas being congratulated by a group of GOP senators on his nomination to the Supreme Court. Note the gentleman just over the nominee's left shoulder, grinning like a Carolina possum. It is none other than Jesse Helms, the gentleman from Monroe.
In the hearings that began yesterday, the Judiciary Committee is trying to find out what Mr. Thomas thinks about the fundamental questions of our time, and Mr. Thomas is doing his best to keep the senators guessing. In the absence of straightforward answers to their questions, Jesse Helms' delight is a valuable clue to where the nominee stands.
Mr. Helms made his own reputation not as a traditional conservative, but as a herald of the radical right. He opposed every civil-rights advance of the past generation, and race has been a consistent subtheme in his every campaign. For more than 30 years, he has urged staffing the federal courts with judges who think the same way. His minions have been involved in scouting such candidates and screening them to assure their purity of thought.
Of course, Strom Thurmond is speaking up for the Thomas nomination, too -- ol' Strom, who still holds the Senate filibuster record, which he set in opposing the feeble civil-rights bill of 1957. But sometime after 1965, after the Voting Rights Act brought so many blacks into southern politics, Mr. Thurmond eased gingerly into the 20th century.
Not Mr. Helms. He has not compromised. He does not rejoice over selection of a black man to the high court without being sure first that that nominee agrees with him on civil rights, abortion and other hot-button issues dear to his hard-right constituency.
According to a New York Times/CBS poll, 65 percent of Americans surveyed last week still could not say whether the Senate should confirm or reject Mr. Thomas.
Quite likely, that is because during the summer holidays they had not paid attention to debate over the controversial Thomas record as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and his remarks in favor of ''natural law,'' whatever that may mean. When questioned, they obviously had not been moved by the massive administration public-relations campaign featuring Mr. Thomas's rise from hard times in Pin Point, Georgia.
Almost as many blacks (63 percent) as whites were undecided about confirming him. Black men who had an opinion were split evenly, 22 percent yea and 22 percent nay. White women, the biggest single bloc of voters, were mostly (71 percent) uncertain. Even 61 percent of the minority who said we should trust the president more to pick Supreme Court justices were unsure about Mr. Thomas.
Thus these confirmation hearings are not a pro-forma exercise; they will be extremely important in forming public opinion, and thus in influencing senators who must face the voters next year. That means senators are going to press hard for answers to their questions, and the more Judge Thomas dips and dodges, the worse he will look to the undecided public.
The White House and Mr. Thomas' Senate sponsors maintain that he does not have to respond to committee questions about the things that matter most. President Bush's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, says ''we did not question judicial nominees on specific issues that may come before the courts, and we expect the Senate will do no different.''
Mr. Fitzwater is being disingenuous. It is easy to believe the president did not personally ask Mr. Thomas how he would decide various specific cases, or indeed that he did not ask him anything at all about his beliefs. He didn't need to. That screening was done long ago, before Mr. Thomas was brought into the Reagan administration, and in the years since he has only reinforced right-wing enthusiasm for his promotion.
It is true that no nominee to the high court is legally bound to answer any particular question put to him by the Senate. It is not true that the Senate is somehow obliged to avoid asking hard questions, politely sticking to vague legal philosophy. If they are to serve the public, committee members are not only entitled but obliged to find out where he stands.
Mr. Thomas' handlers have tried to divert attention to his Pin Point roots instead of his troublesome public record. They would like it to seem that by pressing him, senators question the good faith of his grandparents and the nuns who taught him. But this nominee is not a Georgia grandparent or a teaching nun. This is a man who spent more than a decade laboring to become a darling of the political right, and succeeded.