By any means necessary

Tom Wicker

October 18, 1991|By Tom Wicker

THE GUTTER tactics that helped win confirmation for Clarence Thomas as an associate justice of the Supreme Court were authorized by President Bush (not by something impersonal called "the White House"). Those tactics resulted in a glorious victory -- the smallest margin of confirmation for a high court nominee in 103 years; an associate justice who will sit for decades with neither an unblemished name nor the unstinting consent of the Senate.

Thomas' reputation was injured by more than charges of sexual harassment, or by his showing in the original hearings that he is not much of a scholar of the law or the Constitution, and has little experience outside the bureaucracy.

He injured himself as grievously with his intemperate charges -- hardly displaying judicial temperament -- that he was being "lynched" and was the victim of a racial stereotype. That cheapened, in the first instance, the memory of the real lynchings of real people that soil American history; it retreated, in the other, into that very shelter of spurious racial excuses that Thomas often has scorned other blacks for devising.

Nevertheless, senator after senator repeated mindlessly that he "deserved the benefit of the doubt." Why? No one called for such a benefit in, say, the disputed case of John Tower to be secretary of defense; Sen. Strom Thurmond did not talk about the benefit of the doubt in 1968, when he led the filibuster that defeated Abe Fortas for chief justice, although a clear majority of the Senate then supported Fortas.

Clarence Thomas was not on trial for a criminal act, in which guilt must be proven. He was undergoing judgment on his fitness for the Supreme Court, a co-equal branch of government, as a member of which he will be the highest-ranking black official in the nation. Why should anyone seeking such an exalted and powerful position be accorded the benefit of the doubt when truth is in dispute? The American people, in their need for a Supreme Court of undoubted rectitude and solid approval by both the other branches of government, more nearly deserved that benefit.

But they will not now have the court they need, not least because President Bush was determined to win, to put a questionable nominee on the bench at any cost to the public and to the court itself.

He approved what his subordinates devised, when he and they concluded that the Thomas nomination would otherwise be lost; the president of the United States authorized a deliberate attack on the character, motives, mental condition and veracity of an American citizen named Anita Hill.

In what way did this sordid campaign differ from the tactics of the defense attorney who impugns the morals and behavior of the rape victim ("she was asking for it") in order to win acquittal for the rapist?

If it was believed, as undoubtedly some White House aides and no doubt Bush himself believed, that Clarence Thomas was the victim of false charges, was it proper, even so, for the president and his men to launch in response a series of false charges of their own?

Not only should "the White House" and particularly the president hold themselves, and be held, to a higher standard of behavior than that. They also could not know that Anita Hill was lying; but they did know that the charges they concocted -- she was fantasizing, she was a scorned woman, a disappointed careerist, perhaps mentally unstable, a participant in a conspiracy -- were mere speculations (perhaps even fantasies) designed on purpose to discredit Anita Hill, to make her the issue rather than Clarence Thomas.

What was Bush's alternative? Perhaps the defeat of Clarence Thomas; if so, the president could have chosen another nominee as acceptable to himself, perhaps better qualified and more confirmable.

President Nixon faced that necessity twice and ultimately chose Harry Blackmun and the present chief justice. George Bush elected instead to push Clarence Thomas onto the court by any available means, to win at any cost, to place political victory above presidential responsibility.

That was characteristic, and in keeping with the Willie Horton ad of 1988 and with Bush's flag-burning amendment -- the first effort by an American president to restrict the Constitution's guarantee of free speech.

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