Historic conflict between political forces put Thomas on shaky ground



Timothy M. Phelps and Helen Winternitz.

Hyperion. 433 pages. $24.95. Timothy Phelps and Helen Winternitz provide us with a thorough and intriguing look at the life and times of Clarence Thomas. They weave into the central story of his nomination to be a justice of the Supreme Court essential details of his personal development, but focus primarily on the politics of the matter. The result is a portrait that defines Clarence Thomas not so much as a master of his own fate but as the product of the much larger and intensely conflicted political forces of American history.

In this respect, the authors write: "Thomas was a black man in a white man's government, struggling to escape the orthodoxy of the civil rights movement. He was caught on shifting ground between two establishments at war about what government should do regarding bigotry and its legacy."

Mr. Phelps, who covered the Clarence Thomas story for Newsday, and Ms. Winternitz, a former reporter for The Sun, unravel the story of a young man growing up black and adopting the obvious manifestations of this station in his physical appearance and ideology as an undergraduate at Holy Cross.

Yale Law School served as an important part of Mr. Thomas' transition to becoming associated with the Republican political establishment. Far from having pulled himself up by his own "bootstraps," what occurred from the moment he left Yale was a series of very important career moves, all sponsored by Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri. John Danforth, as Missouri's attorney general, selected Mr. Thomas to work as assistant attorney general in the field of tax law in 1974.

When Mr. Danforth was elected to the Senate in 1976, he referred Mr. Thomas to Monsanto chemical company in St. Louis, where he worked until Mr. Danforth selected him for his Senate staff in Washington in 1977. Then Mr. Danforth was the chief manager of Mr. Thomas' bid for the Supreme Court nomination.

Another critical key to Mr. Thomas' political development, the authors say, was his reading of Thomas Sowell, the conservative black economist. If anything, the Thomas-Hill hearings revealed aspects of the culture of a small but important segment of black professionals who served Republican administrations. They, like other young people of this generation who are upwardly mobile, were confronted with the dilemma that the power structure was openly hostile to the black political legacy of the 1960s -- and if they were going to fulfill their objective in government, they had XTC to make choices based upon the conservative regime that controlled the reins of power in Washington.

This accounts for the slow but inevitable change in Clarence Thomas described by the authors, in his confrontations with Bradford Reynolds, the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Mr. Reynolds was supremely hostile to the liberal definition and implementation of affirmative action, and Mr. Thomas initially disagreed with him on issues such as the vigor with which the administration enforced civil rights and President Reagan's use of federal funds to support the Bob Jones Academy, a segregated institution in South Carolina. Ultimately, Mr. Thomas gave in, and by the mid-1980s he was attempting to disassemble the implementation of "goals and timetables" as the bedrock of affirmative action implementation and to establish individual redress as the basis of EEO enforcement.

The theory of individual rights as the method of equal opportunity replaced group rights, or the concept of "protected classes" that was the focal point of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the civil rights establishment fought Mr. Thomas at every step of the way. It just so happened that this theory comported well with the way in which the small band of professional blacks could rationalize their presence at places such as Yale, and subsequently within a Republican establishment. If one reads, for example, "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby," the recent book by Stephen L. Carter, a black Yale Law School professor, Thomas Sowell is mentioned as an influence but the mentorship of Clarence Thomas takes on mythical proportions.

In any case, there was also the irony that at the end of the Thomas-Hill Hearings, on Friday evening, Oct. 11, 1991, Mr. Thomas realized that he had been caught between the powerful forces of the civil rights community and the government, which threatened to crush his ascension to the Supreme Court. He forsook his neutrality -- and perhaps his individuality -- on the question of race and used its powerful historical currency to make a stand "as a Black American" suffering a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

The way in which these forces shaped black individualism is also key to the behavior of Anita Hill, also a Yale-educated lawyer. As we now know, she is a Democrat who disapproved of Mr. Thomas' attempt to change the course of EEO regulation, and who is also pro-choice. But in seeking upward mobility, she felt that maintaining a relationship to Mr. Thomas -- and perhaps even suffering occasional sexual advances -- was absolutely vital to her future.

On the other hand, the authors give us an interesting chronicle of the activities of the NAACP and especially those of its executive director, the Rev. Benjamin Hooks -- which, if true, appear to paint him as something of a sellout to the black civil rights cause. The authors' key allegation is that Mr. Hooks, through former Sun reporter Arch Parsons and others, was used as a tool of the

White House to delay the response of the civil rights community.

The authors assert: "By keeping the NAACP on the fence, the Bush administration had already succeeded in neutralizing Ralph Neas and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights." In fact, Mr. Parsons did contact this reviewer to express his opposition to an op-ed piece I had written for the Washington Post in mid-July that was critical of Mr. Thomas. Regardless of whether Mr. Hooks received assurances from John Jacob, president of the National Urban League, that he would not take a position until the NAACP completed its lengthy investigation of Mr. Thomas, the fact is that Mr. Jacobs and the League eventually took no position. Just as important, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, announced his support of Mr. Thomas in a move that completed the immobilization of the black civil rights community.

This appears to suggest that if presidential access is the main currency of civil rights leaders, they become vulnerable to its power when the interests of the president are at stake.

What drove the Thomas-Hill affair was not the personal predilections of these two black professionals, ironically caught up at the center of a unique political event in American history. It was the gamesmanship of nomination politics in an arena in which President Bush intended to follow the lead of Ronald Reagan in creating a high court that would adjudicate from a conservative perspective.

This attempt by Mr. Bush to pack the court was disrupted by the insertion of Anita Hill's explosive charges, it may be deduced, by the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. In other words, Mr. Thomas and Ms. Hill were only the instruments by which they were able to derail Republican intentions. Therefore, an important lesson of this affair is that regardless of attempts to "reform" the system by which Supreme Court nominees are selected, it will generally yield to the politics of the moment, as this book makes abundantly clear.

Dr. Walters is chairman of the Department of Political Science at Howard University.

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