With some tears and traces of anger, Virginia Thomas shares the pain


WASHINGTON -- She is by turns impassive, defiant, angry and tearful. As she sits behind her husband, Virginia Thomas' face catalogues her emotions and betrays her ordeal.

"I saw her break down in tears last night," her mother, Marjorie Lamp, said yesterday. "And I broke down, too."

Virginia Lamp Thomas is a clever lawyer from Omaha, Neb. She has been a congressional aide, a business lobbyist and now is a legislative official for the Department of Labor. But after this month, she will be remembered first as the wife who sat at Clarence Thomas' elbow as he tried to fight off the ugliest kind of accusations before the eyes of the world.

A white woman from an upper-middle-class background, she knew she would cope with controversy when she married an outspoken, conservative African-American in 1987. She never bargained for this.

Yesterday, she told friends at the hearing she was feeling fine. Not everyone believed her.

"She's a strong woman, a resilient woman," said the Rev. Rodney Wilmoth, of Omaha's St. Paul's United Methodist Church, who officiated at the couple's large wedding. "But I could see they were getting so close to the nerve endings, it was tearing up Ginny."

The Thomases have become inseparable in their shared pain. When they returned to their home in suburban Virginia Friday afternoon, the judge refused to watch Anita Hill's testimony. But Virginia Thomas described bits of Ms. Hill's accusations of sexual harassment to her husband as he sat in another room.

Clarence Thomas is medium height and broad; Virginia Thomas is tall, with brown curls, blue eyes and the blushing pink complexion of a Thomas Gainsborough portrait. They are opposites in appearance and background, but complementary in temperament and like-minded in politics, friends say.

Both have argued against "comparable worth" laws to give women and men equal pay, contending no bureaucracy should be set up to interfere with the market in wages. Both feel minorities are hurt, not helped, by affirmative action that gives advantage to the less qualified.

Now 34, Virginia Thomas is the youngest of the four children of Donald and Marjorie Lamp, who have long been active in Nebraska Republican politics. She received a bachelor's degree business communications and political science from the Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha. She studied hard, got good grades and spent free time working for former Rep. Hal Daub, a Republican who was swept into office with Ronald Reagan in 1981.

When Mr. Daub went to Washington, Virginia Lamp went too. She quickly found its political obsession to her liking and determined to stay. Before long, she had been promoted to Mr. Daub's legislative director.

In 1982, she went back to Creighton for a law degree. She returned to Mr. Daub's office, but left in 1985 to join the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a labor attorney, where she spent a good deal of time working on such issues as comparable-worth legislation.

In 1985, she had crossed the path of Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, because of their shared opposition to comparable-worth proposals. He had been married before, to Kathy Ambush, but they divorced in 1984.

In three years, their friendship deepened, and they decided to be married. Friends and family members initially were shocked to hear of the plan. And Judge Thomas has since been criticized for it by some blacks, who maintain that his marriage to a white woman is a sign that he rejects his own race.

But by all accounts, the marriage is solid. Living with the couple is 19-year-old Jamal Thomas, the judge's son from his first marriage.

Virginia Thomas remains close to her parents. One sign: She declined their offer to be with the couple during the hearings -- she simply thought there was no reason to put them through the pain, friends say.

"So we're here at home, doing what we can to lend support," her mother said.That support includes urging everyone who calls to tell Sen. James Exon, the Nebraska Democrat, to vote for Judge Thomas.

Friends fear the Thomases' nightmare may worsen, but insist they will endure.

"I've always said Clarence Thomas is a lion," said Ricky Silberman, who is vice chairman of the EEOC and a family friend. "She is a lioness."

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