The Thomas enigma

September 24, 1991

It appears to be a foregone conclusion that Clarence Thomas will be confirmed as a justice of the United States Supreme Court, so stating our preference is essentially an idle exercise.

But suffice it to say that after two weeks of probing hearings, Thomas remains an enigma. At various times in his life he seems to have been something of a radical, then a Reaganite conservative. During the past two weeks, he has sought to cloak himself in the mantle of a moderate. If the hearings have demonstrated nothing else, they have shown that Thomas has the luxury of an accommodating conscience. His legal and political philosophy seems to take on the coloration of whatever landscape he inhabits at the moment.

Whether President Bush's choice of Thomas was a political master stroke or just a cynical ploy depends upon one's perspective. But it is the most profound of ironies that the overwhelming majority of the Congressional Black Caucus, not to speak of the established civil rights leadership, has vehemently opposed Thomas while new and old conservatives have vehemently supported him.

We must point out: At the outset of the hearings, in what was no doubt a heartfelt revelation, Judge Thomas said in a choked voice that he could remember when his grandfather, an illiterate black sharecropper who made up for his deprivation by a gritty determination that his offspring would find a better life, had been called "boy." Well, Judge Thomas, if you had looked in front of you at the Senate Judiciary Committee, you would have seen the person who called your grandfather (or at least people like him) by that demeaning term: none other than J. Strom Thurmond, 88, Republican senator from South Carolina, who in 1948 led the last gasp secessionist battle of the Civil War. Surely it must have made Thomas feel a little queasy to hear that he had the unflagging support of such a political troglodyte.

Of the dozens of witnesses who appeared for and against Thomas, two stand out in our minds. Former Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold, who was also a Republican solicitor general of the United States, said simply that by no objective criteria could Thomas be called qualified to sit on the Supreme Court. On the other hand, Dean Guido Calabrese of the Yale Law School said that while he disagreed with practically everything Thomas had ever written or said, he had great "hope" that as a member of the court Thomas would "grow."

Calabrese's recommendation that Thomas be confirmed thus sounds to us a little like Groucho Marx's famous recommendation: "He's a very honest fellow, but you have to watch him."

So in the end, the most we can say is that we hope that Calabrese's hope proves to be well-founded.

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