Abortion rights supporters particularly worried that Senate Democrats might give him a pass on his conservative political background because of political pressure to have a black man on the court.
In addition to calling me in their search for dirt to disqualify Thomas, the liberal establishment called Thomas’ former co-workers, including Anita Hill. He had hired her for two government jobs. He recommended her for a later job as a professor. She had never filed any complaint of sexual harassment against him. When the FBI agents and reporters from the Washington Post interviewed her about the nominee, she never mentioned any high-pressure sexual advances that amounted to harassment. The FBI agents did report that Hill “talked about [his] behavior,” apparently sexual come-ons and off-color jokes shared among adults.
But Hill eventually came forward to testify about tidbits of conversation with sexual overtones. The Thomas nomination hearings took on a soap opera quality as they stretched into prime-time, nightly television reality shows featuring salacious talk about pubic hair on a Coke can and porn movies.
During the hearings, the reality of Thomas was swallowed up by a media storm of ceaseless rumors and blinding personal attacks on him. The hearings gave Thomas’ opponents a huge media canvas to paint him as the evil stand-in for any man who sexually harassed women at work, and a puppet of the far right who was groomed and ultimately controlled by Presidents Reagan and Bush.
It was unfair to Thomas. He was a news source for me when I was the Washington Post White House correspondent, and I knew that he was often branded by conservatives as not really conservative and not a team player. But the image created by his liberal opponents played to a history of racist slander against black men as sexual predators and intellectual weaklings.
Thomas famously called the attack a “high-tech lynching.” It was a different kind of lynching. This one included black civil rights groups who felt obligated, as part of the liberal activist community, to join the battle to protect abortion rights.
His “Own Man”
Time, however, is on Clarence Thomas’ side. Thomas has taken advantage of the first 20 years of his lifetime appointment to the court to repair his disfigured image. As the hearings fade into history, Thomas’ goal has been to shift his public image from the hateful, cartoonish ogre to an independent thinker, free from both liberal and conservative orthodoxy. Twenty years later, Justice Thomas defines himself as being his “own man.”
He came to my 50th-birthday party, and afterward, one friend who talked with him called me to say, “They lied on that man.” And in his court opinions, his book and his public appearances, Thomas has defined himself on his own terms as a black nationalist in the self-reliant, proudly independent tradition of his hardworking Georgia grandfather, Myers Anderson.