Book deal by Thomas valued at $1.5 million

Advance for his memoir may be biggest for work of sitting high court justice

January 10, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has agreed to sell HarperCollins the rights to publish the memoir of his rise from poverty for an advance of $1.5 million, people involved in the deal said yesterday.

The advance appeared to be the highest ever paid for a book by a sitting justice of the Supreme Court. Justices have often written books from the bench, then recused themselves from matters involving their publishers as a potential conflict of interest.

But Thomas' gripping life story and his politically charged judicial career generated a singular level of attention and debate in the publishing world. And people involved in the auction for the book said Thomas, a conservative, also appeared to anticipate a partisan reception for the book.

The outline of the deal was reported yesterday in The Washington Post. Lisa Herling, a spokeswoman for HarperCollins, a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., declined to comment. Lynn Chu, the literary agent who represented Thomas, also declined to comment.

Several people who read Thomas' proposal described it as an earnest, straightforward black Horatio Alger story. Its working title is From Pin Point to Points Beyond, a reference to his impoverished origins in the town of Pin Point, Ga. Thomas wrote in the proposal that he planned a memoir beginning at his birth and culminating at his "emotionally overwhelming investiture at the Supreme Court," according to a portion of the proposal read to a reporter.

In a series of five meetings with competing publishers in his Washington offices over the past few months, Thomas said that he planned to address the best-known episodes of his career, including the allegations of sexual harassment raised during his stormy confirmation hearings in 1991.

But Thomas told people who met with him that he does not plan to "reargue" his confrontation with his accuser, Anita Hill. Instead, they said he would describe his personal experience of the hearings, characterizing the accusations against him as false, tinged with racism and motivated by politics.

Editors who met with Thomas said he also expected politics to influence the book's promotion as well. He told potential publishers that he expected strong promotional support for his book from conservative commentators, and especially from his friend, radio host Rush Limbaugh. Thomas was best man at Limbaugh's most recent wedding, and he told editors that Limbaugh planned to read the book over the air, people involved in the meetings recalled.

Thomas insisted that the book contract include provisions allowing him to control any promotional appearances, in part, he said, to preserve "the dignity of the court."

He also indicated that he expected hostility from some news organizations and wanted to avoid unsympathetic interviews. He told editors that he would not appear on the network morning shows, for example, because he feared they might attack him on the air. But he said he was willing to appear on Fox News, which he perceived as more sympathetic to his conservative views. And he left open the possibility of speaking with other interviewers, such as the ABC News anchor Barbara Walters.

Editors who read the proposal said it echoed autobiographical stories that Thomas has delivered in many speeches and interviews, often using his upbringing to illustrate political points about the importance of self-reliance and the dangers of dependence on government.

The proposal drew a range of strong reactions from publishers. Some with liberal views rejected the manuscript out of hand. Others said they felt Thomas was distorting his past into a self-justifying account of his triumph over adversity.

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