Clarence Thomas: Victim’s Night Out

Maureen Dowd writes in today’s New York Times that Clarence Thomas’ Feb. 13 speech to the American Enterprise Institute “was so self-pitying and self-aggrandizing that it evoked comparison to Bill Clinton’s defense for pardoning Marc Rich, when he said that it was easy to say no and took courage to say yes.” This actually understates it. You really have to read Thomas’speech to believe it.

Let’s put the speech in its proper historical context. For several years now, the Republican Party has controlled majorities in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, and on the Supreme Court. With a little help from Thomas himself, the Republicans just regained the White House. The preeminent political journal in America at this moment is the conservative Weekly Standard. Television public affairs shows typically feature debates between moderates and conservatives. Although liberalism continues to hobble along, the left is even more powerless and pitiful than the right was after Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat. There is serious discussion about carving Ronald Reagan’s puss onto Mount Rushmore. Introducing Thomas, AEI President Christopher DeMuth identified Reagan as one of the three greatest presidents in American history, and, though Chatterbox wasn’t there, he thinks it pretty unlikely that anybody giggled. This is the milieu in which Thomas portrayed himself as a lonely and miserable crusader for justice.

Thomas’ speech makes only glancing reference to his Senate confirmation fight, which was indeed pretty nasty. Apparently, Washington was a hellhole long before that:

For some reason that now eludes me, I expected citizens to feel passionately about what was happening in our country, to candidly and passionately debate the policies that had been implemented and suggest new ones. I was disabused of this heretical notion in December of 1980, when I was unwittingly candid with a young Washington Post reporter. He fairly and thoroughly displayed my naive openness in his op-ed about our discussion, in which I had raised what I thought were legitimate objections to a number of sacred policies, such as affirmative action, welfare, school busing–policies that I felt were not well serving their intended beneficiaries. In my innocence, I was shocked at the public reaction. …

What terrible fate did Thomas suffer as a result of his indiscretion? He was forced, within a matter of months, to become chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission! In that capacity, apparently, he was pilloried for holding unorthodox views:

Why were these policies beyond question? What or who placed them off limits? Would it not be useful for those who felt strongly about these matters, and who wanted to solve the same problems, to have a point of view and to be heard? Sadly, in most forums of public dialogue in this country, the answer is no. … In my humble opinion, those who come to engage in debates of consequence, and who challenge accepted wisdom, should expect to be treated badly.

Is this the same Clarence Thomas who was profiled admiringly in the February 1987 Atlantic Monthly, a magazine that Thomas would today almost certainly characterize as being more sympathetic to liberals than to conservatives? (Even though it, too, seems these days to be edging slightly rightward.) Is this the same Clarence Thomas who was not long after elevated to the federal bench, and a few years after that to the Supreme Court, even though his qualifications were, and remain, in doubt? Who, it is often pointed out, rarely bothers to formulate even a single question during oral arguments?

Thomas ends with a lonely battle cry:

Today, as in the past, we will need a brave “civic virtue,” not a timid civility, to keep our republic. So, this evening, I leave you with the simple exhortation: “Be not afraid.”

It was only after Chatterbox finished reading that he realized where else he’s heard this particular mixture of privilege and resentment. It wasn’t from Bill Clinton; for all his wounds, most of them self-inflicted, Clinton never pretended he did anything but love being president of the United States. No, Chatterbox is thinking of another dim bulb who has gone through adult life convinced that the world is out to get him, even as his path has been smoothed at every turn. In Dubya’s case, though, he’s smart enough to try to hide it. Watch and learn, Mr. Justice.

[Update, Feb. 16: You can watch Thomas deliver the speech by clicking here.]

Photograph of Clarence Thomas on the Slate Table of Contents by STR/Reuters.