Historic conflict between political forces put Thomas on shaky ground

June 28, 1992|By Ronald Walters


Timothy M. Phelps and Helen Winternitz.

Hyperion. 433 pages. $24.95. Timothy Phelps and Helen Winternitz provide us with a thorough and intriguing look at the life and times of Clarence Thomas. They weave into the central story of his nomination to be a justice of the Supreme Court essential details of his personal development, but focus primarily on the politics of the matter. The result is a portrait that defines Clarence Thomas not so much as a master of his own fate but as the product of the much larger and intensely conflicted political forces of American history.

In this respect, the authors write: "Thomas was a black man in a white man's government, struggling to escape the orthodoxy of the civil rights movement. He was caught on shifting ground between two establishments at war about what government should do regarding bigotry and its legacy."

Mr. Phelps, who covered the Clarence Thomas story for Newsday, and Ms. Winternitz, a former reporter for The Sun, unravel the story of a young man growing up black and adopting the obvious manifestations of this station in his physical appearance and ideology as an undergraduate at Holy Cross.

Yale Law School served as an important part of Mr. Thomas' transition to becoming associated with the Republican political establishment. Far from having pulled himself up by his own "bootstraps," what occurred from the moment he left Yale was a series of very important career moves, all sponsored by Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri. John Danforth, as Missouri's attorney general, selected Mr. Thomas to work as assistant attorney general in the field of tax law in 1974.

When Mr. Danforth was elected to the Senate in 1976, he referred Mr. Thomas to Monsanto chemical company in St. Louis, where he worked until Mr. Danforth selected him for his Senate staff in Washington in 1977. Then Mr. Danforth was the chief manager of Mr. Thomas' bid for the Supreme Court nomination.

Another critical key to Mr. Thomas' political development, the authors say, was his reading of Thomas Sowell, the conservative black economist. If anything, the Thomas-Hill hearings revealed aspects of the culture of a small but important segment of black professionals who served Republican administrations. They, like other young people of this generation who are upwardly mobile, were confronted with the dilemma that the power structure was openly hostile to the black political legacy of the 1960s -- and if they were going to fulfill their objective in government, they had XTC to make choices based upon the conservative regime that controlled the reins of power in Washington.

This accounts for the slow but inevitable change in Clarence Thomas described by the authors, in his confrontations with Bradford Reynolds, the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Mr. Reynolds was supremely hostile to the liberal definition and implementation of affirmative action, and Mr. Thomas initially disagreed with him on issues such as the vigor with which the administration enforced civil rights and President Reagan's use of federal funds to support the Bob Jones Academy, a segregated institution in South Carolina. Ultimately, Mr. Thomas gave in, and by the mid-1980s he was attempting to disassemble the implementation of "goals and timetables" as the bedrock of affirmative action implementation and to establish individual redress as the basis of EEO enforcement.

The theory of individual rights as the method of equal opportunity replaced group rights, or the concept of "protected classes" that was the focal point of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the civil rights establishment fought Mr. Thomas at every step of the way. It just so happened that this theory comported well with the way in which the small band of professional blacks could rationalize their presence at places such as Yale, and subsequently within a Republican establishment. If one reads, for example, "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby," the recent book by Stephen L. Carter, a black Yale Law School professor, Thomas Sowell is mentioned as an influence but the mentorship of Clarence Thomas takes on mythical proportions.

In any case, there was also the irony that at the end of the Thomas-Hill Hearings, on Friday evening, Oct. 11, 1991, Mr. Thomas realized that he had been caught between the powerful forces of the civil rights community and the government, which threatened to crush his ascension to the Supreme Court. He forsook his neutrality -- and perhaps his individuality -- on the question of race and used its powerful historical currency to make a stand "as a Black American" suffering a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

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