Thomas, senators take their places, scripts in hand


WASHINGTON -- Before Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas entered the Senate caucus room, his political wizard checked things out.

Kenneth Duberstein, drafted by the White House to shepherd Thomas through the confirmation process, strode into the vast and echoing room and cast a critical eye at the TV lights.

Once upon a time, this room was meant to convey the majesty of the democratic process. It is replete with crystal chandeliers, wine red carpets, white marble pillars and a ceiling inlaid with gold.

Today, however, it was a TV studio. Ugly black spotlights hung from a pole and bathed the room in a harsh, white glow. Fat black and green cables snaked over the carpeting. Loudspeakers were bolted to the walls.

It was, Duberstein decided, exactly as it should be. Because the confirmation of Clarence Thomas is really about the performance of Clarence Thomas.

Robert Bork may well have lost a seat on the Supreme Court because of his performance in this room. Bork was abrasive and argumentative. He seemed to think that his confirmation had something to do with the candid exchange of vigorously expressed ideas.

Duberstein, a political consultant who got David Souter through this process last year, knows better. By the time Souter entered this room, an appealing image had been built. And the inch of black sock peeking out from the bottom of his too-short pants only helped. He was Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart: shy and humble, but solid and quietly competent. The senators didn't lay a glove on him.

Clarence Thomas will not have it so easy. He is better known and more controversial. So Duberstein has been rehearsing him mercilessly these past weeks. Thomas even joked about it. Asked by Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Delaware, how old he was, Thomas replied: "I've aged over the last 10 weeks."

Over the last 10 weeks, he has gone through mock hearings where aides, posing as senators, have peppered him with questions. He has pored over briefing books and has studied videotapes so he can give the proper responses to the senators' questions without hesitation.

If this performance has little or nothing to do with the job he seeks -- Supreme Court justices do not make their decisions either quickly or in public -- so what? It is just like a presidential debate. The media and public have come to demand the drama of it all.

And if the senators rarely find out how a nominee will actually act as a justice, this is because they are not supposed to. The script, the charade, does not allow it.

President Bush says he never asks potential nominees to the Supreme Court how they will vote on abortion. And nominees do everything but stand on their heads to avoid saying how they stand on abortion.

So instead of an investigation that yields hard information, we are given the performing arts. And, in the case of Thomas, we are given a huge emphasis on where he has come from rather than where he is going.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, was terrifically impressed, for instance, by Thomas' lack of plumbing as a child. "It wasn't until he was 7 years old that he lived in a house with indoor plumbing!" Grassley said during the hearing. (Grassley might be shocked to learn that according to the American Housing Survey of 1989, approximately 487,600 Americans still live without indoor plumbing. And we don't have room for all of them on the Supreme Court.)

The degree of Thomas' childhood poverty has become a matter of contention. And though many groups oppose him for many reasons, the harshest criticisms have come from blacks who say Thomas wasn't that poor and even if he was, he has forgotten his roots.

Some have said far worse. Columnist Carl Rowan has written that "if you sprinkled some flour on Judge Thomas' face, you might think you were listening to David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader."

And Ronald Walters, chairman of the Howard University political science department, wrote that Thomas might not really be black at all "because 'blackness' ultimately means a set of values from which Thomas is apparently estranged."

There is a certain irony here that Thomas cannot fail to notice: As a child, Thomas was taunted by other blacks for being too black, for having a dark complexion and being "A.B.C. -- America's Blackest Child."

It is unlikely, however, that these confirmation hearings will get into a discussion of Thomas' blackness. That's because none of the 14 senators who sit in judgment upon him on the Judiciary Committee are black. (There has never been a black on the committee; there have been only three blacks in the history of the Senate.)

So having a black on the court is no small matter. The Supreme Court is the nation's most exclusive club. Sitting there is not only an personal accomplishment, but a powerful public symbol.

And the White House has finessed the Thomas nomination in a fascinating way so far. Originally, the name of a Hispanic judge was leaked to the press as being George Bush's replacement for the retiring Thurgood Marshall, the only black on the court.

Clarence Thomas was named the next day, however, and the White House seemed to be sending a message: If Thomas is defeated, his replacement very likely might be a Hispanic, leaving the court with no black seat. (Seats can come and go. There has been no Jewish justice on the court, for example, since Abe Fortas resigned in 1969).

But as Thomas walked confidently into the caucus room and shook the hands of the senators, sometimes grasping their hands with both of his, he did not look like a man who intended to fail.

And in his opening statement, brimming with the emotion his friends know him for, he ended by saying that he hoped the committee would conclude that he was "honest, decent and fair."

Joe Biden, the committee chairman, said that was not enough. And tried to pin him down on natural law, which few people have an opinion on, and abortion, which almost everyone has an opinion on.

But Thomas would not be pinned down. His past statements on natural law had nothing to do with how he would act as a justice, he said, and he would not comment on how he would vote on abortion.

Biden was not happy, but Thomas, with the exception of a nervous grin every now and then, did not seem to mind.

These hearings will go on for days, and as long as Thomas sticks to the script and says as little as possible in the most appealing way possible, he ought to make it to the Supreme Court.

That's the way we choose our courts. That's the way we choose our presidents. That's the American way.

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