Judge Thomas: Above the Clouds
Jude Wanniski
October 15, 1991

 

The Wall Street Journal's front page yesterday tells us "Even if Confirmed, Judge Thomas Will Be Under Cloud of Doubt." My guess is that Clarence Thomas will be confirmed, perhaps by the narrowest of margins, with Vice President Quayle casting the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. The confirmation, coming as it has, will lift Justice Thomas above the clouds. In a strange way, the bizarre weekend of Judiciary Committee hearings on Anita Hill's sexual harassment charge against Judge Thomas elevated him to heroic proportions. Instead of slipping quietly onto the High Court as a quasi-cardboard White House cut-out, he will have surmounted every fiendish obstacle the dark forces of history could place before him. If confirmed, he will be the best known, most influential black political leader since Martin Luther King, because of the test he was forced to endure this last week. History will view him as a pioneer, the first black American to lead his people out of the bondage of the welfare state to the promised land of entrepreneurial capitalism. It would be fitting if, in fact, he succeeded by the narrowest of margins. To finally make it across a desert with the last drop of water gone is even more of an accomplishment than getting there with a full canteen.

I've written about this in what might seem to be mystical terms, as if this were somehow a struggle between Good and Evil. History, though, always demands of its great leaders tests of the kind we are now witnessing. Civilization advances only when a positive force overcomes a negative force, when a "yes" becomes strong enough to outweigh a "no." Mankind must be composed of almost equal weights of optimists those who wish to advance and pessimists those who wish to remain. Through them, the Global Electorate assesses and acts upon the information available to it at any given moment. If homo sapiens were all of one disposition or another, they would have become extinct eons ago. For there to be a force of light, there has to be a force of darkness. If there is to be Good, there must be Evil.

From this perspective, the extra-legal process in the Senate was demanded by the supreme forces of history. Judge Thomas and his supporters raged that the process was wrong, shameful and hideous. I'm more inclined to agree with Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who insisted the process was as good as it gets, especially on an ad hoc basis. It was nasty, but out of it we got the heartfelt, anguished outcry from Judge Thomas about the racial stereotype which was threatening to do him in. At the time of the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, I recall thinking how important it was that a racial stereotype had been eradicated, once and for all -- the notion that "black people live the way they do because they prefer it that way," a notion I'd heard all through my childhood. Martin Luther King was the pioneer who exploded that myth, through civil disobedience. The racial stereotype that Clarence Thomas confronted in these confirmation proceedings was that black men are physical, not cerebral. No matter how hard a black man might try to fool us into thinking he is on the same intellectual plain as white men, the stereotype tells us that deep down he is dominated by his body. He has strength. He has rhythm. He has sexual prowess. He has lust. The enslaved black male was used for his physical characteristics. The stereotype clouds the memory of Martin Luther King, whose bedrooms were wiretapped by President Lyndon Johnson, the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, and the Attorney General at the time, Robert Kennedy. It was conservative Republican senators who used this gossip in trying to deny Dr. King the posthumous honor of a national holiday in his name.

This is the old order that Clarence Thomas and black men of his generation are straining to escape. As the reports of his life inform us, Clarence Thomas has demonstrated he can achieve the pinnacles of intellectual prowess without a trace of the black stereotype in sight. Anita Hill's testimony attempted to destroy that achievement in one fell swoop. But it wasn't only Ms. Hill who worked that vein. At one point in the proceeding, Senator Biden tried very carefully to get Clarence Thomas to admit, just between us guys, that when Judge Thomas sat around with other men watching football games he would relax, yell out expletives and maybe even tell dirty jokes. Judge Thomas shot him an icy stare and denied having this kind of private side. He explained that he uses the same kind of language with everyone and would not tell a joke to anyone that he could not tell to everyone. He is a G-rated, 43-year-old black man, who for several years in the 1980s was the Boss in an office composed mainly of female professionals. With this remark, Biden went slackjawed, incredulous. The commentary in the white press corps was almost uniformly disbelieving as well. Sen. Howell Heflin tried to lure him into a discussion of "date rape," one of the low points of the proceedings. The Republicans too were obtuse at times. To make a point that it was incredible that an educated man would use the crude language attributed to Judge Thomas by Prof. Hill, Sen. Orrin Hatch invited Judge Thomas to explain how he would go about seducing a woman. Judge Thomas visibly recoiled at the thought.

The one question I hoped could be asked of Anita Hill, had she returned to the hearing, was if she had read "The Exorcist." I'd written last week that I believed the dark side of history was working through Professor Hill. Her testimony was, after all, filled with the most grotesque of phantasms. Inside Clarence Thomas, deep down, lurks a beast revealed only to her and nobody else. It is the last ugly shadow of the black male physical stereotype that hung from ropes amidst lynch mobs throughout our history. With Clarence Thomas's confirmation to the Supreme Court, this stereotype would be gone forever, along with the myth that Martin Luther King demolished, that "Negroes live the way they do because they prefer it that way."

In my mind, while I never thought Anita Hill was lying, there was never the possibility that she could be telling the truth. If, at any point in her professional contact with Clarence Thomas at the Department of Education or the EEOC -- he had actually asked her to "go out with him," and she responded positively, there is of course no way the news could be kept from every employe in the department. In the offices he had filled with female professionals, the news itself would have destroyed any chance he could succeed in his mission. This is why he could not ask her to "go out" with him, even if he might let the idea flit across his mind.

In the hearings, nobody thought to raise this point. Nobody thought to put themselves in his shoes. If there had been a black Senator on the committee such questions might have been raised. He would not be burdened with the stereotype, as are all members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and all members of the Senate. They might have put themselves in Clarence Thomas's place and considered the consequences as they might have seemed to him. Instead, many of the senators seemed to assume he would naturally be unable to restrain himself with a comely young woman in his domain. If he had asked her out, the testimony of the other women in the office who knew her suggested she would have swooned. Sexual harassment in the workplace rarely proceeds from a boss who is handsome, brilliant and eligible. There was no harassment here.

I listened carefully to her testimony. She never told the committee he asked her out. She said: "He said I ought to go out with him." She never said he invited her to watch porno films. She said: "He said I ought to see them." Nor did anyone on the committee think to ask her to describe in any detail his attempts to date her. Did he ask her to dinner? To a basketball game? A concert? Why bother? In the stereotype, a black male asks a woman out only for one reason! No one thought to ask Anita Hill if this man she remembers as a drooling sex fiend, who had control over her job, ever asked her to go on an overnight trip. She would have said no, of course, because he never did ask. If he had, the one person she surely would have told was her roommate, who did not testify at the proceedings. The so-called "corroborating witnesses," presented by Judge Thomas's opponents as conclusive ear-witnesses, were incredibly weak, not one a confidante.

We'll see, now, who is under a cloud as a result of this extraordinary episode. My guess is that Judge Thomas, having demonstrated it is possible for one black American to cross the desert, will soon be seen as having parted a sea. Many of those who have fought him every step of the way may soon wish they hadn't.