Sunday, February 10, 2008

Book Review: My Grandfather's Son

It isn't very often that I am able or interested enough to read a book in one sitting. My Grandfather's Son by Judge Clarence Thomas is one of those exceptions. I have more than a passing interest in Judge Thomas, because his public inquisition prior to his confirmation to the Supreme Court had a large hand in turning me away from mushy moderateness and toward knuckle-dragging conservatism.

Thomas opens his narrative with meeting his biological father, a man he calls only "C," when he was nine. C soon disappears after that, and doesn't reappear until much later in his life. This incident might not make sense chronologically, but narratively it does: he moves his father offstage quickly to make it clear who he regarded as his real father.

Born to a single mother in the tidewater country of southeast Georgia, Thomas grew up what we would describe as dirt-poor. He seems to have had fond feelings for Pinpoint, GA, where he wandered about with his brother and other boys doing things boys did. The lack of indoor plumbing or electrical conveniences didn't seem to bother him. When one of his cousins burned down the home where they were living, he and his mother and brother moved into a different sort of dirt-poor neighborhood in urban Savannah. Thomas's mother was a housekeeper for a white family (this was 1955), and could barely keep the family together and fed, so she arranged for the boys to move in with her parents, whom Thomas called Aunt Tina and Daddy. Daddy was a hard, semi-literate man who kept the boys working and harshly disciplined, but fed. As the book's title suggests, Daddy became the most important influence on this man who grew up in less than promising circumstances.

Daddy was born in 1907 in the deeply segregated south and made it his mission to work for himself rather than work for a white man. The circumstances of segregation bothered him, but he still regarded America as a place worthy of respect. He passed on this fierce independence and work ethic to his grandsons. Afraid of the influence of city life, he moved his wife and the boys out to some family land in rural Georgia and built a farm. Thomas doesn't discuss a lot about having fun on the farm, though he is quite thorough about describing where he picked up his work habits. Daddy believed in working "sun to sun," and that diligence paid off for Clarence as he got older.

Thomas and his brother went to school in Catholic schools, which was still a bit of a rarity at the time, but if there were serious incidents of hostility or racism from the white kids, Thomas doesn't dwell on them. The biggest influences on him there were the nuns, who again encouraged hard work. In his mid-teens, Thomas was giving serious thought to becoming a priest, and the nuns and eventually Daddy were happy to lead him along the path necessary to accomplish that goal: a Catholic high school and then Holy Cross College.

It was in college that Thomas began to learn more about the civil rights struggle, and what the various leaders (Martin Luther King, Louis Farrakhan, and the Black Panthers were saying in particular) were saying should be done to improve the lot of what were then called Negroes. Despite growing up in the segregated South, it wasn't until he moved to Massachusetts, he writes, until he heard someone call him "nigger." When a classmate expressed satisfaction that Dr. King had been killed, Thomas broke with his faith and his chosen profession. He became, in his own words, "an angry black man." Of course his decision to no longer pursue the priesthood resulted in a break with Daddy, leaving him alone to face his disillusionment with the white North.

You can see how Thomas's professional outlook and career were formed by his "Daddy" and his experiences in the civil rights movement. His participation in a demonstration that led to a riot scared him enough to realize that he was heading down a dangerous path. Rather than stay with the path of radical activism, he returned to his studies, eventually being accepted to both Harvard and Yale. He chose Yale, but eventually determined that the choice was not optimum, as "a Yale degree meant one thing for a white man and another for a black." In short, he was presumed to have gotten his degree through affirmative action and lowered standards. His Daddy's teachings of hard work and independence caused him to seek solutions for his people that did not lead to dependence on the government or, more especially, white liberals.

Perhaps the least interesting part of Thomas's narrative is his early life as a young lawyer, husband, and father. You can practically sense the man's frustration in the lack of challenges. He got his first break from a fellow "Yalie" John Danforth, who was Attorney General in Missouri and who would eventually become a U.S. Senator and prominent defender of Thomas in his later career. He was often in difficult financial straits, and eventually moved on to Monsanto to earn some serious money, which he came to call the "golden handcuffs." He seems to have reached the conclusion that money was not everything and so took the chance on a career in Washington as a legislative aide to Danforth.

Life in Washington was not much better for Thomas than it had been in Missouri. His financial troubles continued, as did his marital and drinking problems. Most of his money seemed to go to pay for his son's private school education, as he refused to put him into public school. The marriage ended, and Thomas moved in with a friend until he was given custody of his son, at which point he got his own place and more debt. Civil servants must not make a whole lot--and Washington, DC, is NOT a cheap place to live.

Thomas's professional career eventually headed in the right direction, as he became, incongruously for a black man at the time, a political appointee in the Reagan Administration's Department of Education. He also acquired the friendship of several eminent black conservatives, including Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Juan Williams. Thomas seems to have been drawn to Reagan's philosophy because of his desire to get government out of black people's lives and increase their independence. It was in the Department of Education that Thomas also first met Anita Hill, who in Thomas's book comes across as an ambitious social and professional climber.

Reagan himself asked Thomas to take over the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was a shambles. "Keep it off the front page," was his only order. It was during this time that Thomas's Daddy died. With increasing problems in his agency and his grandfather's death weighing heavily upon him, Thomas decided to straighten out his life. He quit drinking. He ran in a marathon. He returned to the Church. And most importantly, he made peace with his grandfather and committed himself to living by his rough-hewn, hardworking ideals.

Thomas's career in EEOC is filled with a variety of bureaucratic and political problems that can only be interesting to someone who has worked in or fought a federal agency. Suffice to say, by the end of his tenure, Thomas had cleaned up the agency's performance and even its office space. Anita Hill followed him here, too, managing to continue pushing for career advancement. Thomas leaves open the question of whether Hill was glomming onto him to advance her professional career or if she was interested in him personally as a single man. However, she threw a tantrum when someone else was promoted into a position she felt she should have gotten. Thomas did the honorable thing and helped get her a teaching job back in her home state of Oklahoma. Hill was only a minor part of Thomas's life at this point. He was more concerned with fighting bad perceptions of EEOC in the media as well as fighting ingrained perceptions from civil rights leaders and reporters that Reagan was a racist and that any black man who worked for him had to be delusional somehow.

As Reagan's second term came to an end, Thomas met Virginia Lamp, a corporate lobbyist. He didn't believe he would marry a white woman, but he found that they were personally compatible. She would prove to be an important support for him in the next phase of his career as a judge.

Thomas apparently didn't have a plan for his career after EEOC. Instead, political friends and allies provided one for him: Judge on the DC Circuit Court, a path that would eventually lead to his nomination by George H. W. Bush to become a Supreme Court Justice. I find this somewhat hard to believe; you don't get that far in Washington without being fairly driven and self-aware.

The last 100 pages cover Thomas's brief stint on the DC Circuit, Bush Sr.'s invitation, and the subsequent hearings that made Thomas and Hill infamous. Thomas does not shade his anger at these proceedings, nor does he spare himself from self-recrimination as he was torn apart in the press. What Thomas provides here is a painful, first-person narrative of what it's like to be the target of a media smear job in Washington: his need to hide, his gratification at the support he got from friends and strangers, and his utter outrage as Hill's accusations were leaked and threatened to delay his confirmation. This is the Clarence Thomas most of us know best: the serious, indignant man vigorously protesting his "high-tech lynching" before the Senate and the media.

It is odd to me how both sides of that political fight ended up getting what they wanted. The liberals got a poster child for sexual harassment (Anita Hill) who, according to at least one of my former liberal friends, got Bill Clinton elected. The conservatives got a hard-nosed, precedent-minded judge on the Supreme Court.

Clarence Thomas's personal story is worth reading, if only because I'm not likely to ever read it in a positive light in the mainstream press. It helps provide some insight, though not much, into how Thomas thinks about the law and its purposes. History will tell us how he performs for the Court. He will be a fixture there for some time to come. Still, there is something bloodless about Thomas's narrative. His prose doesn't become seriously passionate until dealing with his Supreme Court confirmation, perhaps because those memories are freshest for him. I would have enjoyed more insights into his grandfather and the lessons he learned in Georgia. I would also have appreciated more insight into some of his philosophy/thinking. In any case, you can get a decent idea of the man from the book: he is serious, private, and hard working. It might need to be left to others to reveal the man beneath the armor.

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