After the pain, understanding

Dan Rodrick

October 16, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"The older you get," a man 10 years my senior said 10 years ago, "the less judgmental you tend to be about other people. You'll see."

He was a wise friend, a man who had been through a little bit of hell in his life and had the scars to prove it.

He had just listened as I railed against a colleague who was on the road to ruin, driven by a virulent personal problem he refused to address. It was hurting his wife, harming his kids and infuriating those of us who cared deeply about him.

I was angry.

My older friend was philosophical. "You'll see," he said so knowingly it hurt.

But, for all his insightfulness and sensitivity, this same man probably would have asked for an exemption to his own attitude when it came to Clarence Thomas or, for that matter, anyone who accepts the public trust.

The rules are significantly different for making judgments about public men and women. We're allowed to judge them harshly and hastily. We can put them on pedestals or bury them in scorn -- with no room for doubt in between -- if we chose. We do it every day. So that notion about getting older, wiser and less judgmental doesn't hold when the subject of our judgment is seeking office in this democracy -- especially a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.

This bit of philosophy occurred to me again last night, after the Senate's confirmation of Thomas as a justice on the high court, after Thomas had emerged to say his few words and Anita Hill had emerged to say hers.

There are a lot of unhappy people in this nation today -- Thomas' ideological opponents, women who feel hurt and demoralized, men who feel ridiculed, and millions of Americans who are still bickering with friends -- and themselves -- over the nuances of this bizarre prime-time passion play. And, of course, it's another gloomy day altogether for anyone who looks to the Supreme Court for integrity and judicious instruction.

All that aside, I still come back to the idea my friend expressed 10 years ago because, while it's hard to sympathize with Clarence Thomas, the public man and ideological hypocrite, it's possible to soften a judgment of the private man. We have to leave that option open -- even for right-wing zealots who make careers making mean judgments about others -- or we stop being human.

There were three reasons for the public outrage over the Thomas hearings and confirmation process.

First, the nation was in a state of mass denial (and attendant anger) over Anita Hill's charges; we didn't want another scandal, nor did we want to confront the prospect that the man the president picked for the Supreme Court -- "the best man for the job" -- was weird and crass, in The Reverend Orrin Hatch's words, "a pervert." Secondly, we -- the boys on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in particular -- didn't want to deal with sexual harassment. But thirdly, we came to see the committee's last hearing as a probe into the deep outer space of Thomas' past -- well beyond where senators ought to go. It made the country nervous and uncomfortable.

Ten years ago in Clarence Thomas' past, he did something ugly, Anita Hill said, and it caused her great pain; it demeaned her. Unless they are totally dishonest, Thomas' most ardent supporters have to admit that somewhere along the line something happened between these two people. And we don't know the full story. So maybe it's time to back off.

Which is sort of the point.

"The older you get the less judgmental you tend to be about other people," my friend had said. Put another way, he might have been saying: "The world is full of the walking wounded. Go easy on your fellow man."

Even Clarence Thomas. And especially Anita Hill.

Time and experience make us human. We grow, we struggle with life, and we all get a little sullied in the fray. We do foolish things. We hurt each other. We fall into briars. We get lost in life's emotional shadows. We agonize, now and then, or maybe constantly. We live with our pasts.

Questions about the Thomas-Hill connection will persist. Many will wonder about the woman's motives for a long time. Others will wonder about the man's character even longer.

About such questions, the old and wise E.B. White once wrote: "Those who try to answer [them] are doomed to failure for the answer is something deep and dark and ungraspable."

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