Thomas battle highlights Danforth's steadfastness

October 20, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The craggy face could be hewn from Mount Rushmore. The hair, with its bright white flash, is equally signal. The voice, deep, clear and resonant, is nothing less than cavernous. Even the nickname is impressive -- "Saint Jack."

By any measure -- and he is 6 feet 3 inches tall -- Sen. John Claggett Danforth, 55, is a patrician presence, never more so than during the confirmation hearings of Judge Clarence Thomas.

But the Republican from Missouri will be seen in a surprisingly different political posture tomorrow, turning from resolute champion of a conservative Supreme Court nominee to enthusiastic sponsor of a liberal civil rights bill.

He will introduce in the Senate the sort of legislation that 'N Clarence Thomas might seek to restrain as a Supreme Court justice -- if it ever gets that far. President Bush, who publicly thanked Mr. Danforth for his confirmation efforts, is now poised to veto his legislation.

The White House believes that the bill, strengthening laws against bias and easing claims by workers, would create "quotas" in the workplace. Mr. Danforth will be relying this week on support from most of the Democrats who opposed him on the Thomas confirmation last week.

There is political paradox aplenty here. For further confusion: Mr. Danforth, the civil rights advocate, is an enduring opponent of a woman's right to choose an abortion.

But there is also a constant: In each case, he has followed his conscience.

"I'll say one thing about him," said John Powell, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party from 1980 to 1983. "He's very determined. If he gets his mind set, he won't change it for hell or high water."

Mr. Danforth was Judge Thomas' patron, sponsor, defender and constant companion. He started his protege on the path to power as legislative assistant in his Senate office 12 years ago. In the bitter final stages last week, he escorted him, every dramatic and lurid inch of the way, to the Supreme Court.

It was, in the eyes of Mr. Danforth's admirers, a classic example of the loyalty and steadfastness that are part of his breeding and character.

Alex Netchvolodoff, lifelong friend of Mr. Danforth's, godfather to his children and until recently his chief political aide for 23 years, said: "I don't think Danforth is unwavering without justification. Clarence Thomas, seen through Danforth's eyes, is a truly admirable character, worthy in every sense of the consistency that Danforth gave him."

Through the eyes of his critics, Mr. Danforth's role in the Thomas imbroglio was a lamentable lapse by a decent politician into unfairness and zealotry that helped elevate an unfit candidate to the nation's highest bench.

Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, said: "I think he has been so loyal to Thomas, he has participated in debasing and denigrating the institution of the court.

"I was quite shocked at the role he played in the administration's assassination plot against the character, integrity and credibility Anita Hill," Ms. Michelman said. "It was an insult to women in this country, and I think it was a shameful performance. I think we have seen a different John Danforth."

"He took the kid gloves off"

Mr. Danforth's performance as a principled chameleon does not surprise home-state Republicans such as Mr. Powell, a self-proclaimed conservative.

He recalled warning Mr. Danforth in 1979 not to buck sentiment in Missouri by voting to hand over the Panama Canal to Panama: "People here just didn't like the idea of giving away the Panama Canal. I told him, 'My God, you're going to be hard to elect.' But he was very adamant about it."

In 1982 he ignored another warning from Mr. Powell. He was running for re-election to the Senate but stayed in Washington.

"He felt secure," recalled Mr. Powell. "I kept calling him, saying, 'Look, they don't want to hear me. They want to hear you. You get out here; this thing's going downhill.' "

A newspaper poll that showed him trailing finally shocked Mr. Danforth into action. Said Mr. Powell: "That got him out. He took the kid gloves off and started slugging. He saved his own skin."

His Democratic opponent in that campaign was Harriett ("Give 'em hell") Woods, a state senator who now heads the Washington-based bipartisan National Women's Political Caucus. Mr. Danforth's victory margin over her was less than 1 percent.

"I think he wanted to be able to ride into office like a white knight, never saying an unkind word. He found himself threatened, and he said as many unkind words as he could think up," recalled Mrs. Woods, accusing Mr. Danforth of retreating from his disavowal of negative campaigning.

"My campaign did Danforth a tremendous favor. It humbled him somewhat. That was a wising-up and a maturing politically for him."

Priest and public figure

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