- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2001

President George H.W. Bush invited Clarence Thomas to his home in Kennebunkport in July, 1991, on the eve of his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, to ask only two questions:

One, could his family endure the confirmation process? Two, could he "call it as you see it" could he rule on the law and not on his personal beliefs?

The prospective nominee answered yes to the first because he didn't know what was in store for him and his family. He answered the second with a more informed yes.

"In a perfect world, the second question would be the only one members of the Supreme Court should ever have to answer, either to a president or to the legislators who confirm their appointments," he told the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute the other night in Washington.

Justice Thomas laced his remarks with quotations from Immanuel Kant, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Pope John Paul II, with lots to say about the confirmation process and the hazards of independent thinking in the nation's capital. He gave the diners more than the filet of beef and mashed potatoes to chew on as they consider the benefits and responsibilities of free speech in a democracy.

What troubles Justice Thomas most of all and he ought to know is that on "the very difficult issues such as race there [is] no real debate or honest discussion." He learned this when he first came to Washington and was interviewed by The Washington Post two decades ago. He raised what he thought were "legitimate objections on a number of sacred policies" affirmative action, welfare, school busing which he thought had wrought harmful, if unintended, consequences on those very people they were designed to help.

"In my innocence, I was shocked at the public reaction." he says. "I had never been called such names in my entire life." That interview was his first trial by fire in Washington, the ultimate company town whose industry and obsession is politics. The second scorching ordeal was the spectacle we've all come to remember as the "Thomas-Hill hearings," when enemies of the justice not only called him names, but even invaded his garbage can for evidence of his taste in videos. The critics were looking for evidence of pornography, and found none.

He called those hearings, accurately, "a high-tech lynching."

If vicious accusations were a rope, Clarence Thomas would have been left hanging from a tree. On the radioactive subject of race in America, he learned that honest expressions of differences of opinion are not permitted in Washington. Orthodoxy was, and is, always enforced in public (in private is another matter): "When whites questioned the conventional wisdom on these issues, it was considered bad form; when blacks did so, it was treason."

His argument finds a provocative counterpoint from Andrew Sullivan in the current New Republic, who courageously questions the media resurrection of Jesse Jackson after his disclosure that he had fathered an illegitimate child. If Clarence Thomas is tar baby, Jesse Jackson is teflon black.

"If he were white, he would have about as much prominence in national life as Jimmy Swaggart," writes Mr. Sullivan of Jesse Jackson. "Yet he endures and thrives, raking in vast fortunes from corporate America, betraying his family, casting racial aspersions on anyone with whom he disagrees, and inveigling his offspring in the corrupt and corrupting operation he laughably calls the Citizenship Education Fund (CEF)."

Then Andrew Sullivan really gets mad. "Jesse Jackson's greatest betrayal, of course, is to the cause of civil rights," he says. "Unable to reconcile himself to the strides made in the political and civil equality of black Americans, Jackson has perpetuated the lie of permanent black victimhood, whatever the context. For Jackson, it is forever 1965."

If the Rev. Jerry Falwell or Rep. J.C. Watts had paid the mother of an illegitimate child with tax-exempt funds, the media and even his supporters would have forced him from public life. But Jesse Jackson continues to be courted, sustained by a black population "that seems to have mistaken forgiveness for sanction, redemption for regrouping."

Andrew Sullivan and Clarence Thomas complement one another. Justice Thomas exhorts America to honest and vigorous debate, urging Americas to speak up no matter the obstacles in an uncivil society, to confront the truths of heart and mind and not be afraid to follow where they lead.

We can all recognize the tyranny of censorship. There is also the tyranny of self-censorship. It was no coincidence that Clarence Thomas presided over the swearing in of John Ashcroft as attorney general. An honest judge recognizes an attempted lynching when he sees one, whether the target is black or white.

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