Poll Wars


October 19, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON | GARLAND L. THOMPSON,Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

The votes are tallied and the statements of victory are history. Clarence Thomas, a one-man civil-rights wrecking crew during most of the 1980s, now goes on the Supreme Court.

One of the more interesting features of debate was the use of polls to decide who really spoke for America's blacks. Before Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill's sex-harassment complaints were aired, polls showed black support for another black man taking Thurgood Marshall's seat, but little support for his stance. Then Judge Thomas' critics began to report on his record.

At the Office of Civil Rights, Mr. Thomas was under a federal court order to move complaints through investigation and remedy by a specified timetable. Carter-administration officials had originally been subject to the order, but it still was in force for the Reagan administration, too. Mr. Thomas, under oath, admitted egregiously failing to meet the court's timetables, prompting the judge to say his predecessor had inherited a bad situation and worked to make it better, but that Assistant Secretary Thomas differed from him as night from day.

That episode came up during the hearings, when Democrats prodded Judge Thomas about it. Then a furious Republican counterattack began: Wasn't it Carter administration officials whose misbehavior provoked the lawsuit in the first place? Wasn't it Democrats who failed to be vigilant on civil rights? There, in the record, stood the thunderous ''night and day'' comparison of Assistant Secretary Thomas and his predecessor. But no Democrat pointed it out.

And so it went. As EEOC chief, Clarence Thomas swung a heavy sledge against mechanisms to attack broad-pattern discrimination, trashing both the policies and the enforcement unit. His supporters testified that he increased the filing of individual cases, but no senator challenged him about turning the rights fight into a pinprick war.

Meanwhile out in the hustings, those who looked closely at that record were appalled. The largest black churches' leaders came out against confirmation. Black support on polls rapidly declined FTC and polls were less discussed.

What if opinion polling had been so sophisticated in 1956? Can't you see the Associated Press reporter, standing in the streets of Montgomery, saying to E.D. Nixon and Martin Luther King Jr., ''Gentlemen, your views don't represent the majority of Alabama Negroes. The latest poll says most of them think you are just stirring up trouble. Who elected you to be the leaders?''

Who elected Clarence Thomas? Strom Thurmond? Jesse Helms?

Later, when Anita Hill got dragged into the spotlight, speaking reluctantly but with great dignity, nominee Thomas worked up a sweat attacking the Senate over its temerity in granting her a hearing. It was all a conspiracy against a black man, he said, a high-tech lynching. The law is often esoteric to the average citizen, so it is no surprise many blacks had remained neutral on Judge Thomas. But most knew something very personal about the long history of stereotyping and racial ambushing that checkers the American way. Judge Thomas' emotional self-portrayal of ''victim'' struck home.

With polls now swinging his way, polls mattered again, especially in answer to the civil-rights leadership's continued animosity toward the nominee.

President Bush, who started this mess, said just before the Senate vote that he was ''gratified'' by the support of the black community. Commentators took it up. Didn't those ''leaders'' know they really didn't speak for most blacks?

Democrats might have asked pointedly since when did the third president in history to veto a civil-rights act speak for the blacks, for the women whose arguments Anita Hill carried, or for the downtrodden generally? But they didn't.

And so it went. The Senate, which had ventilated the issues raised by Clarence Thomas' atrocious civil-rights record but limited its own efforts to investigate them, voted to confirm. Women's groups, outraged at the treatment of Professor Hill, now say the Democrats' weak defense of her amounted to betrayal. No surprise there; Democrats have been running away from their alleged agenda since Ronald Reagan out-imaged Jimmy Carter.

The national party has all but given up on persuading the country its intentions are just and its goals are healthy, even in an economy whose clear ills have been exacerbated by Republican-led selfishness in the command posts of American business.

And so it goes. Justice Thomas has called for ''healing,'' but his own record caused the rancor he wants to heal. Time will tell whether his tenure on the court heals anything.

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