Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews



Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas by Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher








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Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher collaborated on an intriguing book titled, Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas. Readers won’t learn much about Thomas’ jurisprudence in this book but will come away with an interesting portrait of his character and attitude. By the last page, I realized that I have not yet come across or read about such a complex and conflicted person. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 9, “The Aftermath: Thomas’s Love Affair with the Right,” pp. 210-215:


Thomas arrived at the Supreme Court badly bruised and unsure of himself. He was exhausted, he told his clerks, unable to fo­cus. “Getting the heck beaten out of you,” he later recounted, “is quite distracting.” Instead of having a chance to “dust yourself off,” as Thomas clerk Chris Landau put it, “you’re facing one of the toughest jobs in the country as your prize.”

The awkward ceremonies that surrounded his confirmation only heightened the unease. First, there had been the lavish White House celebration of Thomas to which three hundred guests were invited, including Thomas’s family and friends from Georgia and celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone and baseball great Reggie Jackson. The day before the South Lawn event was to take place, Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s wife, Nan, died. The death not only hit the chief hard but deeply affected the close-knit court family. That the Thomas party wasn’t postponed struck many at the court as in poor taste.

The White House had been in a difficult spot. It didn’t want to of­fend Rehnquist and his colleagues, but most of the people closest to Thomas were already in town and poised to celebrate after such a difficult battle. For Thomas himself, the situation was agonizing. There also was a political reason to proceed quickly: Who knew how many journalists and activists on the left were still pursuing tips and ru­mors about the justice-in-waiting? White House advisers didn’t want to take any chances that the confirmation might unravel with new revelations before Thomas could actually take his seat on the bench.

On October 18, 1991, the White House “swearing in,” as the South Lawn gala was billed, had all the trappings of an official court induction. Thomas placed his hand on a Bible as the president looked on and Justice Byron White presided. Most of the guests did not know that this so-called swearing in would not be the one that counted. It was left to White, filling in for Rehnquist, to set the rec­ord straight with a pointed reference to the fact that Thomas would become the 106th justice only when he took the judicial oath.

The court’s term already had begun, and Thomas recognized he was behind. He was eager to get sworn in. Hastily arranged at Thomas’s request, the judicial oath was administered privately at 12:05 p.m. on October 23, 1991, in Rehnquist’s office. Only Thomas’s wife, Virginia, and Senator Danforth attended. The other justices didn’t learn they officially had a new colleague until later that after­noon when Rehnquist sent them a terse one-paragraph memo. “I ad­ministered the oath at this time so that Justice Thomas could begin his duties and get his clerks and staff on board,” the chief wrote. “A public investiture will still take place on November 1, as previously planned.”

Rehnquist, a Wisconsin native known for his devotion to the Green Bay Packers and his enjoyment of the game charades, was not in a festive mood. He was still mourning his wife of thirty-eight years and not keeping regular office hours. Administering the oath ahead of schedule had been a favor to Thomas, and he made that clear.

This was not a comfortable time for Thomas, whose insecurities now included how he would be viewed by his fellow justices. “You are here now,” one of them assured him, “and what you do here is all that matters.” But convincing himself was more difficult. He paid the requisite courtesy visits to his colleagues’ chambers, happy to accept whatever advice was offered. Lewis F. Powell Jr., who had re­tired, noted that he and Thomas were two of the few Southerners to make it onto the high court this century. “You will not be sur­prised to find that the work of a justice is demanding,” Powell wrote to Thomas in a follow-up letter, “and probably will require a good deal of homework as well as on weekends.”

Thomas, who had gotten a late start on the bench, worked tire­lessly trying to prove himself, to the point that he was sick for two months at the end of his first term. “When I arrived, I had no staff and no experience with the court processes,” he later explained. “It was an uphill battle.” On his first day at work, he was staked out by camera crews. But because he was driving a 1985 Chevy Celebrity with a missing hubcap, he managed not to draw attention to him­self. One cameraman, however, spotted Thomas pulling away from the court’s parking garage and chased his car down the street. “On your first day, you show up and you know nothing,” Thomas ob­served. “Where do you get coffee? Where are the pencils? How do I get along with the other judges?”

There was no way to know what the justices were really thinking about him. They had watched the hearings like the rest of America. And while very little discussion of Hill’s allegations had occurred around the conference table where the justices gather among them­selves to review cases, that didn’t mean his colleagues weren’t pri­vately fascinated by the debate over his nomination.

What caught Harry A. Blackmun’s eye was Thomas’s responses to questions about Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark ruling legalizing abortion. Thomas had said he could not “remember personally en­gaging” in discussions of the case and stated flatly to Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont: “If you are asking me whether or not I have ever debated the contents of it, the answer to that is no, Senator.” Blackmun had written the Roe opinion and was puzzled by Thomas’s answers. Wasn’t Thomas a Yale Law School student when Roe was handed down? “Surely they must have been aware of Roe against Wade up there,” Blackmun told an interviewer preparing an oral history, adding that “it seemed a little strange to us.”

Whether Thomas just used cleverly crafted language to evade his inquisitors or deliberately lied about his views of the case remains a matter of contention among court observers, legal scholars, and ad­vocacy groups. Blackmun’s interest in Thomas’s confirmation pro­cess, however, wasn’t confined to Roe v. Wade, as his papers housed at the Library of Congress indicate. He had a habit of collecting all manner of minutiae related to his colleagues—cards, notes, news­paper and magazine clippings. It’s instructive that the articles and cartoons Blackmun chose to keep on Thomas mostly relate to the confirmation ordeal, and hardly any of them are flattering. An edi­torial cartoon from the Orlando Sentinel, for example, pictures the nine justices with the script: “Next on the agenda is the issue of sex­ual harassment. Lucky for us, we have a resident expert.”

Combating this notion that Thomas was a sexual harasser who had beaten the rap became a priority of Thomas’s friends. No one was more dedicated to rebuilding Thomas’s image than his wife. Thomas had barely unpacked his boxes at the court when the No­vember 11 issue of People hit the stands, the cover featuring a smil­ing couple embracing. “Exclusive,” the cover screamed. “Virginia Thomas Tells Her Story. ‘How We Survived.’” The entire article, based on a three-hour interview by correspondent Jane Sims Podesta, was written in the first-person voice of Ginni Thomas. In it, she di­vulged her own episode of workplace harassment before she met Clarence—”it was physical”—and how Clarence, upon finding out later, implored her to use “the workplace system to alert manage­ment to the problem.” This was meant to underscore that Thomas was not the type to tolerate sexual harassment. “He gave me the courage to go forward.” As for Anita Hill, Ginni likened her to the character in the movie Fatal Attraction, “or in her case, what I call the fatal assistant. In my heart, I always believed she was probably someone in love with my husband and never got what she wanted.” It was an ex­traordinary piece that revealed intimate details of the “hell” the couple went through, as Ginni described the confirmation process, augmented by photos of them drinking coffee in their kitchen and snuggling on a sofa reading the Bible.

This was not the kind of publicity Supreme Court justices nor­mally sought, and it seemed an odd way for a new justice to begin his tenure. But the People cover story may have said as much about Ginni as it did about Thomas. Asked by Thomas’s handlers to remain silent during the hearings, she would now become his chief protec­tor, seemingly even more deeply mistrustful of the media and those who differed ideologically than even Thomas himself. She dialed in to radio talk shows to defend her husband. And not even the passage of time seemed to ease the impact of the confirmation process on her psyche.

Washington Post reporter Tom Jackman was surprised by a phone call he got on November 8, 1999, the day an article he wrote about a Virginia man falsely accused of being a sex pervert appeared on the front page. The story recounted a Kafkaesque drama in which the chief financial officer of a major defense firm—a fifty-four-year-old grandfather with a good reputation—was charged with indecent exposure for allegedly flashing a nude photo of himself to a sixteen-year-old male lifeguard at his health club. Seven police officers searched the man’s home, confiscating his computer and some family photos. The episode made the local community papers and the man was humiliated before his friends and colleagues. Turned out they had the wrong guy, and the charges were dropped. In the Post article, the accused man described the lonely feeling of waiting for his public degradation: “You’re the only person in the world, other than the actual perpetrator, who knows you didn’t do this.”

Jackman remembers picking up the phone that November day and hearing a woman on the line weeping The article, she said, re­minded her of the ordeal she and her husband had been through.

She was obviously distraught. “My husband’s name is Clarence Thomas,” she said.


I read half of Supreme Discomfort before reading Thomas’ autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son. Then, I completed Supreme Discomfort. Between these two books, the complexity and conflicted person who is Clarence Thomas becomes revealed to the wonderment of readers. I recommend both.


Steve Hopkins, March 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2008 issue of Executive Times


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