WASHINGTON — Washington. -- At his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Me., last summer, President Bush went eyeball-to-eyeball with Judge Clarence Thomas and delivered a warning about what lay ahead.
"You made it this far on merit," Mr. Bush said, according to Judge Thomas' testimony. "The rest is going to be politics."
As Mr. Thomas's chances of gaining Senate approval took a sudden turn for the worse last week, the judges supporters said they were shocked, shocked that the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice had become soiled by dirty politics. But the real shocker is that it didn't happen sooner.
From the start, the White House made the confirmation fight little more than a political campaign by another name, a decision that left it wide open to many of the excesses of politics today.
The "campaign strategy," in essence, was to run Mr. Thomas for the Supreme Court like a presidential candidate. White House spin doctors succeeded in making his personality and compelling life story the focus of attention, while at the same time fuzzing his conservative ideology and deflecting attention from his limited judicial experience. Even as he sought to defend himself Friday against graphic allegations of sexual harassment of an employee, Mr. Thomas returned to the script, reminding senators of his dizzying rise from an impoverished childhood in Pin Point, Ga. to his current seat on the second highest court in the land.
An enduring image from the initial round of Judiciary Committee hearings, as caught by an alert news photographer, featured two White House handlers sitting directly behind Judge Thomas, their hands forming "T" signs as they called for a pause in the proceedings, like a pair of basketball coaches signaling time-out.
Given the campaign-style approach, it wasn't surprising that pro-Thomas groups came up with the idea of producing negative campaign commercials attacking liberal Democratic senators likely to oppose the nominee, a tactic deplored by the White House once the spots had aired on television. But the administration's decision to make character the focus of the nomination fight may only have increased Judge Thomas's vulnerability to the sort of character assassination that has become routine in political campaigns.
When the sexual-harassment bombshell surfaced last weekend, Thomas supporters howled. Republican senators, who also had come to view the confirmation in campaign terms, called it an "October surprise," the phrase politicians use for surprises unleashed in the final hours before an election. Liberal commentators bemoaned the fact that heirs to the proud tradition of Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey would demean themselves by stooping to the sort of politics associated with the late Lee Atwater, the conservative political consultant who successfully managed Mr. Bush's 1988 campaign.
To Democratic pragmatists, however, the hardball effort to derail the nomination was simply a reaction in kind to the tactics that right-wing groups and Republican presidential candidates have successfully practiced against them since the late 1970s.
The result of all of this was reduce the Thomas confirmation to a sort of morality play, a high-voltage personal clash that the TV networks were only too happy to pre-empt their soap operas for: the biggest political battle of the sexes since George Bush kicked a little you-know-what in his debate with Geraldine Ferraro.
But the reopened hearings only served to underscore a growing belief that the nomination/confirmation process had gotten way off track.
Years ago, Mr. Bush said that if he ever became president, his model for choosing a Supreme Court nominee would be his old friend, Potter Stewart. But the only real similarity between Justice Stewart, a quintessential moderate, and Mr. Thomas is that both were 43-year-old appeals court judges when they were nominated. Though Mr. Bush said he chose "the best man" for the job, few others describe Judge Thomas that way. The American Bar Association, while finding him "qualified," rated him lower than all of the current members of the court.
In spite of candidate Bush's statements, as president he has effectively ceded the screening of judicial appointments to the conservative wing of his party, acting through his chief of staff, John H. Sununu. This attempt to keep peace with the Republican right, and prevent a revolt that could damage his re-election chances, has severely limited the number of candidates available for filling court vacancies. Not even Potter Stewart, the model Bush nominee, could have passed muster under the current system, having joined the 7-2 court majority that affirmed a woman's constitutional right to an abortion in 1973.