I’ve been reading Jill Abramson’s and Jane Mayer’s Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, the definitive account of Thomas’s confirmation battle, which came out in 1994. Here are eight things I’ve learned from it. Among the many surprises of the book is how men and women who were connected to the confirmation battle, or to Thomas and/or Anita Hill, and who were little known at the time, would go on to become fixtures of and issues in our contemporary politics and culture.
1. Edward P. Jones, author of The Known World, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, was Clarence Thomas’s classmate at Holy Cross. They had long conversations.
2. Clarence Thomas was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for eight years. When Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court, Strom Thurmond proudly declared, “I’ve known Clarence since he was head of the Unemployment Commission.”
3. Gary Bauer and Bill Kristol vacationed together at the beach each summer, along with their families. In the summer of 1991, at the Delaware shore, they planned the Christian right’s campaign to get Thomas confirmed to the Supreme Court.
4. Citizens United was formed by Floyd Brown in 1988 in the wake of the failed effort to get Robert Bork onto the Supreme Court. Brown helped make the Willie Horton ad. Getting Clarence Thomas confirmed by the Senate was one of the organization’s first missions. In 2010, Thomas was part of the slim majority that ruled in favor of Citizens United in Citizens United v. FEC. Though several arguments for his recusal in the case were brought up at the time, no one mentioned Citizens United’s contributions to his confirmation.
5. One of the ads pushing for Thomas’s Senate confirmation to the Court featured a photo of Thomas with the headline “To the Back of the Bus!” The copy read:
As the left strives to keep Judge Clarence Thomas from his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s like forcing blacks to take a seat in the back of the bus. Fight racism. Call your U.S. Senators and urge them to confirm Judge Clarence Thomas.
6. Angela Wright, one of Thomas’s accusers whose testimony was buried by the Senate Judiciary Committee, worked for Charlie Rose when he was a Democratic congressman from North Carolina. [Update: Actually, the congressman Charlie Rose whom Right worked for was not the Charlie Rose of TV fame. My mistake! Thanks to Steve Hageman and Rick Perlstein for the correction.]
7. Kimberlé Crenshaw was part of the legal team advising Anita Hill.
8. Thomas liked to say that his favorite character in Star Wars was Darth Vader.
Updated (May 26)
9. One of the charges levied against Thomas in the hearings was that he had once spoken favorably about the views of Steve Macedo, the Princeton political theorist, who was at the time a conservative (and a professor at Harvard). There was an extended colloquy during the hearings between then Senator Joseph Biden, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Thomas—Utah Republican Orrin Hatch also got in on it at one point—about whether and why Thomas was attracted to Macedo’s views on natural law and property rights.
10. Along with Kimberlé Crenshaw, Janet Napolitano, Obama’s former Homeland Security Secretary, was also part of the legal team advising Anita Hill. Now she is the President of the University of California, where Crenshaw is a professor.
11. One of the leitmotifs of Mayer’s and Abramson’s book is how much Biden botched the Thomas/Hill hearings. From beginning—when Hill’s allegations first came to light—to end, when the Senate voted to approve Thomas, Biden got played, was cowed, caved into pressure from the White House and the Republicans, or simply didn’t care or understand enough of the issue to push for a fuller and fairer investigation of the facts.
12. When Howard Metzenbaum, also on the Judiciary Committee, found out the specifics of Anita Hill’s allegations about Thomas, the Ohio senator said, “If that’s sexual harassment, half the senators on Capitol Hill could be accused.”