SHARED BELIEFS Common threads link Virginia Thomas to the Supreme Court nominee


Washington-- She was white. He was black. She was tall. He, not so tall. Her family had a winter home in Florida. His family, not even a working toilet.

But as they walked down the long corridor of her former law school in Omaha, Neb., hand-in-hand like an unmatched pair of bookends, professor Richard Shugrue saw only a perfectly suited set.

"This is my fiance," Virginia Lamp said, introducing Clarence Thomas to her former Creighton University law professor.

"I thought, 'This is absolutely perfect!' " recalls Mr. Shugrue of the meeting nearly five years ago. "Every kind of stereotype that militated toward their not getting together was wonderfully smashed.

"It's one of those beautiful stories that, if you put it on paper and sent it to a publisher of fiction, they'd say, 'We can't print this, it's too improbable.' "

And, indeed, on paper, it looks that way.

When U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, 43, told the Senate Judiciary Committee about his background, he spoke of growing up amid racism and squalor in the rural South.

Behind him for the entire week of his questioning sat his wife, Virginia Lamp Thomas, 34, who grew up in a white, upper-middle-class neighborhood in Omaha, Neb., the youngest daughter of conservative, state Republican party poohbahs.

Somehow, their vastly unparallel paths brought them to the same place -- ideologically as well as geographically. And friends see uncanny similarities between the tall and pretty Labor Department deputy assistant secretary -- a midwesterner who once flirted with a controversial self-help course she now condemns as a cult -- and the federal Appeals Court judge from Georgia, a divorced father of a teen-age son, whose Supreme Court nomination is to be voted upon today by the Senate committee. (Ms. Thomas says she's declining all requests for interviews until after the full Senate vote.)

"They have one of the richest mutual admiration societies I've ever seen," says Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice. "They're both extremely gentle and passionate individuals. And they have a high degree of respect for each other. Clarence is the only person I know who calls her Virginia. Everyone else knows her as Ginny."

Opposes comparable worth

The former Ginny Lamp spent the mid- to late-'80s as a labor relations attorney and spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce where she was outspoken in her opposition to such proposed legislation as comparable worth, the concept that women should earn the same salaries as men in jobs that involve comparable responsibility and training.

"Ginny took issue with whether women's rights are significantly served when government, or any bureaucratic body, determines what jobs are worth," says Ricky Silberman, vice chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Her convictions that women and other minorities are ultimately hurt by government programs -- such as comparable worth and affirmative action -- were being echoed at the time by Clarence Thomas, chairman of the EEOC in the mid-'80s.

Mr. Bolick, an EEOC special assistant from 1985-86, recalls one particularly prescient discussion he had with Ms. Lamp -- about the protection of individual's rights -- as they were riding the Metro home from work one night in 1985.

"I said, 'You sound just like my boss, Clarence Thomas. Do you know him?' She said she had met him but had not gotten to know him. I asked her if she knew that his philosophy was so similar to hers. She said, 'No, I had no idea.' "

The two like-minded lawyers finally got to know each other at a meeting of the Anti-Defamation League in New York, recalls Ms. Silberman, who attended the roundtable discussion with her then-boss, Mr. Thomas, and the Chamber of Commerce representative, Virginia Lamp.

"I pictured a much older woman," says Ms. Silberman, now a close friend of both Thomases. "When I saw this beautiful young woman was the Virginia Lamp I'd been hearing about I was greatly surprised."

Miss Lamp and Mr. Thomas, divorced from his first wife, Kate Ambrush, in 1984, were married in May 1987 in a large wedding at the St. Paul United Methodist Church in Omaha.

The bride's minister, the Rev. Rodney Wilmoth, says he discussed with Miss Lamp the issue of interracial marriage, "but it was only discussed in terms of people being accepting of it. It was never like, 'What do you think? Should I marry a man of a different race?' She was very much in love with this man."

Friends describe Ms. Thomas as thoughtful, compassionate and quiet, with strong political interests -- "She's a person with politics in her blood," says Mr. Shugrue -- and a deep spiritual interest. She and her husband attend, but are not members of, Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, Va., a large charismatic church that rents space on its grounds to the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life which runs a home for women who've chosen against abortion.

Some speculate that it was Ms. Thomas' spiritual, philosophical nature that led her to Lifespring, a controversial self-motivational course she participated in for about six months in the early '80s before becoming confused and troubled by the program.

In a 1987 Washington Post Magazine article about Lifespring, Ms. Thomas said she was troubled by such exercises as one in which trainees listened to "The Stripper" while disrobing to bathing suits, and then ridiculed people's bodies and asked one another sexual questions.

She contacted a counselor about the program, decided to leave, but felt guilty about breaking her commitment to the program and said it took her months to break away.

"I had intellectually and emotionally gotten myself so wrapped up with this group that I was moving away from my family and friends and the people I work with," she said. Active against cults

But she did more than leave. She started reading about cults and groups that she believes brainwash and manipulate their members, and by 1985 had taken a public stand against such activity.

As a volunteer for the Cult Awareness Network, a national clearinghouse on cult activity, she's attended annual conferences and helped organize events. Mr. Thomas has attended at least one regional CAN conference in Washington, says Cynthia Kisser, executive director of CAN.

But CAN, too, is a controversial organization -- highly criticized byadvocates of religious freedoms -- because of its association, however loose, with deprogrammers, those hired by parents to extract family members from religious groups.

Dean Kelly of the National Council of Churches, who wrote a critique of Judge Thomas' professional record, says Ms. Thomas' involvement in CAN is "unfortunate." But, he said, he'd only be concerned about Judge Thomas' ability to rule on religious liberty issues if there were some indication the judge shared his wife's views. He has seen or heard none, he said.

Similarly, Patricia Ireland, the next president of the National Organization for Women, says she has concerns about Ms. Thomas' views on women's issues but doesn't believe policy-makers are necessarily influenced by their spouses. Still, she adds, "We have great concerns about Clarence Thomas -- and he does not seem that far apart from his wife."

In fact, say their friends, when it comes to issues, they are seldom apart.

"They're extremely gentle with each other when they disagree," saysMr. Bolick. But it doesn't happen often. "They really do see the world through the same eyes."

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