An evening with Justice Thomas

This evening, in honor of the publication of My Grandfather’s Son, the Heritage Foundation hosted a dinner for Clarence Thomas and his wife Virginia, along with a group of conservative journalists and “new media” types. I have been at social gatherings where Justice Thomas was present but had never actually met him before. Those who know him have told me how warm and gracious he is, and these qualities certainly were evident tonight.
Justice Thomas began his after-dinner remarks by saying he wishes the new media had been around at the time of his confirmation hearings because it “gets beyond the monopoly” held by the liberal media. In this connection, he noted that the old media is misrepresenting the tone and the point of his book by focusing on “anger.” The real tone and point of the book, he said, is quite different. Thomas believes his life story will offer insight and hope, especially to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, he seeks to counter the message, all too prevalent in the black community, that studying hard is a tantamount to being white ,and to call attention to an older tradition in the black community that focused on scholastic achievement. That, of course, is the tradition his grandfather represents.
Thomas finds that his message resonates with the audiences he is able to speak to. On college campuses, for example, what little hostility he encounters is always from faculty. However, he has less energy these days, and hopes that his book will enable him to reach a wider audience, and to communicate more comprehensively, than is possible in person.
Justice Thomas argued that leadership and quality public service, whether in a bureaucracy or on a court, is much less a matter of resume and ideology than a matter of “character.” It’s not that hard, he finds, to figure out the right direction or the correct legal answer. The challenge comes in having “the guts, fortitude, and intellectual honesty” to proceed uncompromisingly once one has figured this out. Asked how a president can identify people with these qualities, Thomas said the key is to identify people who have been in the heat of battle and haven’t given in. He added that those in the Bush I administration who advocated his nomination for the Supreme Court knew he had taken controversial positions as head of the EEOC, come under serious fire for doing so, and stuck to his guns.
This strength of character is particularly important when it comes to the Supreme Court, Thomas suggested, given the system of incentives that’s in place. Because the relevant audience is seen as the nation’s elites, the incentive is to appeal to that audience, which is liberal. Since judges are human, Thomas argued, they tend to respond in accord with this set of incentives. That helps explain why judges “grow in office.” In this regard, Thomas referred to an old article by Judge Laurence Silberman called “The Greenhouse Effect,” in honor of Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times.
Thomas displayed a fine sense of humor throughout the evening. The following two lines, both of which any conservative blogger would be proud to have written, are not representative but are too good not to record. In discussing one of the incentives to “grow in office” — gaining favor with elite law schools — Thomas said “I would have to be a dictator with nuclear weapons to get invited to Columbia.” And in response to Joe Biden’s recent statement that he’s proud he voted against confirming Thomas, the Justice said “that makes two of us.”
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