Standing by Bush's side yesterday during a press conference in Kennebunkport, Maine, an emotional Thomas said, "Only in America could this have been possible." Thomas said he looked forward to the confirmation process "and to be an example to those who are where I was, and to show them that, indeed, there is hope."
Thomas declined to answer questions about his legal views until his hearings.
Thomas is Bush's second nominee to the nation's highest court, and like Justice David Souter, he will benefit from having a moderate Republican senator to guide him through the process.
Conservatives generally applauded the Thomas nomination. Liberals deplored it. And Bush was in the catbird seat.
"The president in this instance gets his chance to have his cake and eat it, too," Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, said yesterday.
"Simply because he's appointed a person of color to the bench, he's free of the charge that he's insensitive," Mfume said. "And at the same time, he's appointed a person who is probably more conservative than some of the people who were being suggested. He recognizes if Mr. Thomas is not confirmed, it is not because he did not nominate a black person."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a conservative Utah Republican, said Thomas is highly qualified.
"He is fair-minded, he is a sensitive individual," Hatch said. "He is also very tough and independent. He is very much his own man -- very much like Justice Marshall."
That was not an assessment many liberals agreed with.
"Judge Marshall brought to the court magnificence," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, "excellence, commitment to civil rights, civil liberties, workers' rights, women's rights, inclusion, expansion.
"And unless Judge Thomas can change, he does not represent that tradition," Jackson said.
Jackson, sometime liberal Democratic presidential candidate, stood in the receiving line with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke at the mayor's fund-raiser yesterday at the Center Club. Jackson was in Baltimore to address the convention of the Missionaries of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Thomas has not been a federal judge very long, Jackson said, and he had some rocky days on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Thomas, an ardent conservative and an outspoken critic of racial quotas, spent eight stormy years as EEOC chairman. He has been a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for 15 months.
"He must be asked a lot of questions," Jackson said. "After all, the court is swinging dangerously to the right, with narrow views that are almost an extension of Republican politics, as opposed to being that of jurists who sit above the political systems.
"It seems," he said, "it's more and more a stacked court, which is not in the best interest of America or the best interest of the court."
Mfume, who was also in Schmoke's receiving line at the Center Club, said he was disappointed with, but not surprised by, the Thomas nomination.
"As long as we continue to elect conservative presidents, we're going to get conservative Supreme Court nominees," Mfume said. "It's just a fact of life."
It's the president's call, he said.
"We live in the kind of world where to the victor goes the spoils," Mfume said. "Unfortunately, he got two nominations to the Supreme Court in his first term -- neither of which represent the ideals that I think are important.
"I think the court, being the court of last resolve, must in every way possible hold the trust of the people of this land.
"If the court is too far to the right or too far to the left, it chips away at that kind of integrity.
"And that's my fear," Mfume said. "We just need balance and I would have preferred a much more moderate Republican.
"People need to believe that there's balance in this court and that you can go there and get equal justice under the law."
Nobody's going to fill the shoes of Marshall, Mfume said.
"Clarence Thomas represents to some people a political oddity," he said. "He is a person of African ancestry who is extremely conservative in his interpretation of social law and social doctrine. That is going to be interesting to explain in the confirmation process."
Schmoke knew Thomas when they were both at Yale University. Thomas is 43, Schmoke 41.
"But I got to know him much better after I worked in Washington a while and we had some mutual friends," said the mayor, who worked in the Carter administration. "You can like somebody on the personal side without getting into the professional issues."
Thomas' "paper credentials" are fine, Schmoke said.
"I've never seen any president appoint anybody who just on paper was not qualified," he said.
"The issue is going to be ideology and as the Rev. Jackson was saying, 'reasoning, not race.' And, beyond just the fact that he is currently a federal judge, what does he think in his head and his heart on issues of choice, civil rights and things of that nature. I don't know yet," Schmoke said.
"I don't really have any sense of where he's going to come out on those issues right now."
Also at the Schmoke fund-raiser was Benjamin R. Civiletti, the Baltimore attorney who was attorney general in the Carter administration.
"I think the president made a good choice," he said. "I think he put quality and qualifications ahead of minority quotas. But there were a number of qualified minorities and I'm glad he chose one of them."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reserved judgment on the Thomas nomination. Marshall won his great civil rights victories, including the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, while general counsel for the NAACP.
"We do not oppose and we do not support" Thomas' nomination right now, said Benjamin L. Hooks, the NAACP's executive director.
"I think he's been viewed as a conservative," Hooks said. "Like Joseph's coat, it had many colors."
The civil rights group will make a decision after the judge is questioned during the confirmation hearing, he said.
NAACP officials said they preferred that a black replace Marshall. Of 107 justices, only Marshall was black and only one has been a woman; 105 have been white men.
"That is a quota system the NAACP is determined to break," Hooks said dryly.
Democratic Party chairman Ronald H. Brown attacked the nomination, perhaps foreshadowing a partisan fight during confirmation hearings in the Senate.
"[Yesterday's] announcement . . . appears to be yet another step in the ideological hijacking of the Supreme Court by the radical right wing of the Republican Party," Brown said.
"Judge Thomas' record should offer no comfort to those who love the Constitution and believe in its protection. I hope the Senate will conduct the most searching inquiry into President Bush's nominee."
Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said that many of the coalition's 185 organizations "expressed serious concerns about Clarence Thomas' civil rights enforcement record while he was a member of the Reagan and Bush administrations."
"We urge the Senate not to rush to judgment," Neas said. "With so many constitutional rights and personal liberties at stake, the Senate must make sure Clarence Thomas has demonstrated a commitment to equal opportunity and equal justice under the law."
But Hatch observed that Thomas was raised by his grandparents in Pinpoint, Ga., in a house without indoor plumbing.
"Anybody who takes him on in the area of civil rights is taking on the grandson of a sharecropper," Hatch said.
Thomas was born near Savannah, where he endured a difficult, impoverished childhood. Raised as a devout Catholic, he was the only black at an all-white seminary high school. He then attended Holy Cross College in Massachusetts and Yale Law School.
"On a personal level, I have a great deal of admiration for him," said Mfume. "I think he's a sharp guy and he's done a lot in his own life to set an example about what you can do when you set your mind to it."
But Thomas will come under microscopic scrutiny from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must examine his nomination.
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, a liberal who was the only Judiciary Committee member to oppose Thomas' confirmation last year to the appeals court, said he wanted to know Thomas' views on privacy and abortion.
"I will not support yet another Reagan-Bush Supreme Court nominee who remains silent on a woman's right to choose, and then ascends to the court to weaken that right," he said.
A spokesman for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the liberal Maryland Democrat, said she "will not prejudge the nomination of Judge Thomas. She will follow closely the proceedings of the Judiciary Committee but the nominee must meet three criteria: [He] must be of upstanding character, of superior competency and have a respect for fundamental constitutional rights."