It has taken 20 years for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to strip away the political filth that nearly buried him. In 1991 his left-wing critics created a public image of Thomas as a monster. They trashed him as an Uncle Tom, Anita Hill’s harasser and the vote on the Supreme Court that would end legal abortion in America.
Today Thomas is one of the two most powerful black men in the U.S. government, second only to President Obama. And at 63, relatively young compared with his brethren on the court, he is established among the elite of American conservative legal thinkers with the possibility of another 20 years on the court ahead of him. He is already the nation’s leading black conservative.
Thomas is also the best-known justice on the entire court, according to polls. His autobiography was a national best-seller. A 2006 poll found that nearly half of the nation, 48 percent, now views him favorably, as compared with 36 percent who have an unfavorable opinion.
And he operates in a world where Gallup polling finds that more black Americans self-identify as conservatives, 29 percent, than liberal, 24 percent. Fifty years after the heart of the civil rights movement, the bulk of black America, 43 percent, labels itself as moderate.
But for all those trends shifting his way, Justice Thomas remains a man to be scorned by the nation’s liberals. The same left wing that gave license to assaulting a bright but Republican and conservative young black man’s reputation 20 years ago still dominates the black political, media and civil rights establishments. And they still hate Clarence Thomas.
I first saw the hatred in the months after Thomas was nominated. Liberal advocacy groups called me repeatedly looking for anything that could stop his confirmation. Did he beat his first wife? Did he pocket money from South Africa’s apartheid government? One senate staffer simply asked: “Have you got anything on your tapes we can use to stop Thomas?”
It was the start of a vicious political assault, a smear campaign that still dominates Thomas’ public reputation. I came to understand it as a crusade by supporters of abortion rights. They felt justified in doing whatever they could to fight against right-wing zealots intent on denying American women the right to legal abortions. Kate Michelman, a leading abortion rights activist, said Thomas had views that would lead “directly to the loss of a fundamental right for millions of American women and families.”
Abortion-rights groups had success in blocking the confirmation of conservative Robert Bork in 1987 by portraying him as a right-wing opponent of abortion. But Michelman said that Thomas’ positions on abortion were “far more extreme” than Bork’s. Michelman and other supporters of abortion rights feared that Thomas’ blackness was a distraction from the danger he posed as a fifth and deciding vote on the Supreme Court against legal abortion.