United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
HH: Pleased now to welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas, welcome, it’s great to have you here.
CT: It’s great being with you, Hugh.
HH: It is a…congratulations on a remarkable book. Are you surprised by how well it has been received, and how briskly it is selling?
CT: Actually, I am very, very thankful and grateful that it was able to get through sort of a negative, sometimes universally negative din, and get through to the people, the audience that I was really writing for, I mean, the people who are still hopeful, who are still trying to live their lives. So actually, I’m more grateful and more thankful than anything else, Hugh.
HH: Well, I think it’s going to endure, and I’ve written about this at Townhall.com, a very long time, in a very significant way. And I want to start, as most memoirs are very, very deliberate things, the first sentence is always crucial. In Richard Nixon’s case, it was I was born in a house my father built. In your case, it’s, “I was nine years old when I met my father.” That tells us plenty about you, Justice Thomas. Why did you choose to begin there?
CT: Well, actually, every subsequent manuscript, every draft, you work on and you work on. But you start at the beginning. You start at where you, what you actually remember. But the most significant event as far as the book goes was the fact that I didn’t have a father. And I think it was so important, I think, to explain to people why wasn’t a father there, the fact that the name of the book, which I entitled myself, My Grandfather’s Son, it was important to explain that title, and to explain the beginning in a way that they could, I think, quickly grasp the title, and grasp my origins, and why I had those early.
HH: Now your book’s only been out a couple of weeks, but I’m wondering, have you heard from other men who grew up without fathers, and who had surrogate fathers like Daddy, your grandfather, who we’ll come to in a moment? But have you had time yet to hear from them?
CT: You know, I have…so much of this book has been written in a way that the question and answer sessions that I’ve had all over this county with wonderful, wonderful people over a couple of decades, and I’ve heard from them as a result of our discussions over the years, and I’ve already heard from people in writing, and specifically in response to the book, about their own childhood, and also about the way that they’re raising their own kids, and reflecting on my grandfather and the way that we were raised. So yes, the answer is yes, I have heard from people, and it’s wonderful.
HH: Justice Thomas, take our listeners, who have not yet picked up My Grandfather’s Son, to Pin Point, Georgia of June 23rd, 1948 when you were born. What is that like?
CT: Well, Pin Point, it’s still there. It’s a very, very small peninsula right off of salt water creeks outside Savannah, as you head over to Skidaway Island. It’s marshland. Some of it’s just that sort of salt water dark mud. Some of it’s beach-like sand. It’s live oak trees and Spanish moss, and azalea bushes and magnolia trees. Not manicured as you would see in some of the resorts, but it’s just idyllic in so many ways. I have so much family there. Everyone worked, most people worked at either the crab factory that was right there next to where I was born, or the oyster factory which was right across the way from it. So it’s rural, it’s idyllic, and it was family. And it was cut off from the rest of Savannah at that time. So me maintained our own dialect, which some people celebrate now in South Carolina as a Gullah dialect, or Geechee dialect in Georgia. And that’s sort of like what you would hear, the patwa that you would hear in the Caribbean.
HH: You write that, “I’m descended from West African slaves who lived on the barrier islands in the low country of Georgia, South Carolina, coastal and northern Florida. In Georgia, my people were called Geechees.” And you talk about that dialect, and you also write later that you had a priest educator who bluntly told you you had to basically learn how to talk again. When did that occur, and what was your reaction to being told that your language was not the language that you could use as a man?
CT: Well, (laughing) my reaction wasn’t very good. I was sixteen years old.
CT: And I think if any of us is sort of given something, sort of negative feedback when we’re sixteen, that we don’t always take that very well. And probably in some naïve ways, I overreacted to it in thinking that what Father Coleman meant was that I was inferior. And I don’t think he meant any such thing. I think what he meant was the truth, and that is there was no way I was going to be able to operate in the real world if I didn’t learn how to speak standard English. And in fact, I think I go on to note there that he actually spent time trying to help me speak standard English.
HH: You did. And when was that project complete? When did you feel like you had finally hit what the good Father wanted you to hit?
CT: You know, I don’t think that we ever hit that point. It took me years, and I mean years of hard, hard work to just be able to write standard English. And in fact, the reason I majored in English at Holy Cross, and again, that was my worst subject matter area throughout college, was because I did not know how to use English sufficiently well, at least in my mind, to go in life. So I majored in English in order to get over that barrier. But you know, I don’t think we’re ever, we’ve ever perfected that, so it’s something that I still continue to think about and to work on.
HH: I read My Grandfather’s Son two trips back and forth to Denver, Justice Thomas, and had a number of interesting reactions. But I put the book down a few times just to reflect on something. One of those is the fact, I don’t know if you’re the only Supreme Court justice who experienced real hunger, but I’m sure you’re the only one who wrote about it. Now do you remember the fact that you had been hungry? Or do you remember what the feeling of hunger is?
CT: Oh, I remember both. You know, and it was just a brief period. It was that period in 1954 when I moved to Savannah after our house in Pin Point burned down. I moved with my mother, and my mother was doing the best she could. She was a young women in her 20’s, and she had three kids and no husband, and she was working as a domestic. So we lived in this tenement, and I included a picture of the tenement as I remembered. It was a Walker Evans picture, photo, but it was exactly what I remember. And we lived in one room, and there wasn’t much food there. So it was my first grade period from late 1954 through the summer of 1955. And I remember the feeling I had was that, and it was a reality, of being hungry, not knowing when I was going to eat again, and being cold, and not knowing when I was going to be warm again. And that is a feeling that to this day still haunts me somewhat.
HH: You also talk about the squalid conditions, the lack of plumbing, and just, really, squalid is the word that applies. Do you, have you kept track of anyone who remained in that tenement, who remained in that first grade, and was not rescued from circumstances as Daddy and your Aunt Tina, your grandmother and grandfather, did for you, and what happened to them?
CT: Well, you know, it’s really interesting, Hugh. I’m glad you asked that, because in fact, I did not, because I mean, I was of course only in the first grade. And when you move when you’re six or seven, during that six or seven years old, you really, there’s not a whole lot that you can remember. But they tore down that tenement shortly after we moved, maybe four or five years later, and it became a housing project, which I think is about to be razed itself. But the thing that’s amazing is I never forgot the kids like me in that tenement. So if you think about so much that really sort of energizes me, it has to do with bringing opportunities to kids who would be wandering around without parents, in tough conditions, in squalid conditions like that. Those are the kids who really, really are desperately in need of help. And so you’ll see. I mean, even in talking about education or talking about making communities safe, it’s always about those kids who are most at risk.
HH: Now Justice Thomas, My Grandfather’s Son’s not only autobiography, it’s biography. It’s a biography of your grandfather, mixed in with your autobiography. And a lot of the commentary that I’ve seen in the interviews you’ve given, it’s paying him his due as the wonderfully interesting fellow who’s yelling that y’all think I’m rich, or he was saying Old Man Can’t is dead. I buried him.
HH: But it’s…I don’t want him to be a caricature. He’s really a rock. I mean, he’s just solid as solid can be. Is that getting through to the audience?
CT: Oh, I think it is. It’s gotten through to quite a few people, and it has…you know, it’s both he and my grandmother, the fact that they believed, the fact that they stood by their principles throughout an enormously difficult time. And it’s getting through that…no, he’s not a caricature. He is the real thing. And if anything, I toned it down. He was, as I said in the very first pages, I came to understand that he was the greatest man I would ever know. And I still believe that to this day. I have a bust of him in my office looking over me with one of his favorite sayings. My wife had it made when I first went on the Court. Old Man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him. And I think that underscores so much of the difficulties, of overcoming the difficulties that you need to in order to get from, say, the squalid conditions of that tenement to a place where you can actually participate in the governance of our great country.
HH: A couple of details, Justice Thomas, about Daddy, your Grandfather. He drove a fuel truck in the early morning darkness. He didn’t believe in a heater. How cold was it in Savannah in the winter when the heater wasn’t on in the fuel truck?
CT: Well, you know (laughing), when people think of the South, they probably say well, it’s not that cold. But you know, when you’re not used to cold, when you’re used to it being over a hundred degrees during the summer, and always warm and pleasant, 35 degrees seems really cold.
CT: Or 30 degrees, or 32 degrees seems as though you may as well be on the North Pole. And so there are times on that truck it was very, very cold. And I was huddled up quite a few times, and mostly, it was in the afternoons I was with him. He took off, he started delivering fuel oil during the daylight hours, but when I first went to live with him, he also, my brother and I went to live with him, he also delivered ice in the wee hours of the morning.
CT: That’s why he started getting up at 2 in the morning, because you had to go to the ice house, you had to get a load of ice, then he would begin making his rounds and delivering it to people’s ice boxes early in the morning.
HH: You also write that he bought a farm and worked the farm in order to keep you and your brother away from people in the summertime when school wasn’t in. Was he much of a farmer, or did he have to learn that in order to keep you out of the city during the summer months?
CT: Well, actually, you know, we were very fortunate. The family actually inherited that farm. It was handed down from his grandmother and great-grandfather, who were freed slaves. And they bought that property. And as is the tradition among so many blacks who were descendants of slaves in the South, once they got property, it was handed down as heirs property from generation to generation undivided. And it was on that property that we farmed. And yes, he was quite a farmer, because he grew up as a part of the tradition where the people out in Liberty County where we were, were subsistence farmers. And what he did, he used to tell us all the time, well, we’re going to farm, and we’re going to live in the ways of slavery time. What he meant by that is that we would live in accordance with the traditions handed down by his grandmother, whom he stayed with when he was, after his mother died when he was nine years old. And she had been a freed slave. So think about it. He was raised in part by his grandmother who was a freed slave, and then he raises my brother and me according to those traditions.
CT: And as I said, subsistence farming was a part of that.
HH: Now Justice Thomas, why was Daddy a Catholic? That struck me…I know you’re very Catholic, and we’ll talk about that, but why was he a Catholic?
CT: He was a Catholic. A friend of his, a very dear friend and business partner of his, I think Mr. Sam Williams, was Catholic, a convert to the Catholic Church. And my grandfather became a convert in the late 1940’s. And when we went to live with him in the mid 50’s, 1955, we of course became converts to the Catholic Church. But I think part of it was he always said that his father was a jackleg preacher. That’s a self-taught preacher. And he was an illegitimate kid, and that really didn’t sit very well with him. And I don’t think he was very religious before he became Catholic. And he became Catholic, and was quite, quite devout.
HH: And did he maintain the disciplines of the Church with weekly Mass and Holy Days of Obligation and the Rosary?
CT: Oh, yes. My goodness, yes. He used to make it, he’d be the first one to 6:00 Mass on all Holy Days of Obligation, and all First Fridays.
CT: And we were altar boys from as early as we could become altar boys.
HH: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, Justice Thomas?
CT: That’s right (laughing).
HH: You can remember the Latin Mass, I wonder?
CT: Oh, yeah. Well, I was away from it so far, but you know, Latin plays such a key role in my life. We memorized it in the old Latin Mass before Vatican II. But when I went into seminary, of course, one of the reasons I had to repeat the tenth grade was to learn more Latin.
HH: I want to come to the Catholic education in just a moment. But before we go there, about Daddy, when he threw you out, in one of the most riveting passages in the book, in retrospect, did he do you a service or an injustice?
CT: He did me a service. I think he did…first of all, he stood for what he believed in, and he stood up for, he kept his word. He made it very clear when we went to live with him that the door opened inward when we went to live with him. But if we did not behave, and we violated his rules, it would open outward. And he felt that I had made a promise that I would not quit the seminary when I was fifteen years old, I made that promise, and I quit the seminary. So I mean, that was, that was something that he said he was going to do, and he did it.
HH: You write also in a very wonderful passage about Jamal, your son being with Daddy, your grandfather, and being spoiled and having six boxes of cereal, and getting the toys out. And he turns to you and he says, you ask him what’s going on, and he says he’s not my responsibility. Does that make sense to you?
CT: Oh, my goodness, yeah, it makes perfect sense.
CT: And I think I go on to explain…I mean, I wonder how many times he’d looked in on my brother and me and wished that he could treat us the way he treated Jamal. But I think he felt that he would have been doing us a disservice if he did not show us how to discharge our responsibilities, and how to navigate in a very, very difficult world, particularly a world in which race was a central issue, and in which discrimination was a significant part.
HH: We’ll come to that just next question. But does Jamal remember him well?
CT: (laughing) Oh, you know, at a very, very unfortunate time in my life when my brother passed away, we went down there to bury my brother, eight years ago. And Jamal, we went by the old farm, which is just about a half mile away from the Church, the burial site. And Jamal and I got out at the house, and simultaneously, and he said some of the best times of my life were spent here, and I said some of the worst times of my life were spent here. So Jamal remembers my grandparents very, very fondly, and he remembers going to the farm very, very fondly.
HH: Can you explain to our audience your grandfather’s distinction between rattlesnakes and water moccasins, which recurs as a very key symbol throughout My Grandfather’s Son?
CT: Well, the reason I used that, my grandfather of course in reality, in the low country, there are quite a few large rattlesnakes and large water moccasins. And that was just a part of life. I mean, it’s like grass being there. Snakes were there, and some very, very dangerous snakes. And the rattlesnake invariably would warn you if it was around. You would hear it rattling. And you could go your way and let it go its way. The moccasins weren’t as accommodating. They didn’t warn you. And sometimes, they did not go their way if you came along. And so his point was simply that they were more dangerous, because you never got a warning. You never knew them up front. They never let you know look, I will hurt you. Instead, what you got is sort of a stealth attack. They would just suddenly lash out at you.
HH: We’ll return to that in a few minutes. Let’s talk about Catholic education as we go through the book chronologically. You’re a product of St. Benedict the Moor, and the nuns of St. Pius the X, and the priest, St. John Vianney, the seminary. So you’re a product of pre-Vatican II approach to education. It’s a drilled Catechism, it’s a very singular faith. I grew up partially in that period of time. Do you still hold to the Catechism of that faith, the Baltimore Catechism, Justice Thomas?
CT: Well you know, I haven’t seen a Baltimore Catechism in years. Remember, I was away from the Church for a quarter of a century. And I can’t say that I’ve seen a Baltimore Catechism, but I do certainly adhere to the tenets of the Church.
HH: Do you believe the Host is the Body of Christ, and the…
CT: Oh, yes. And I say that. The Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
HH: And do you still say the Rosary?
CT: Oh, yes.
HH: And does this in any way affect how you judge? You know, Dean Geoffrey Stone of Chicago said last year after the partial birth abortion decision, he implied, some people say he argued bluntly, that it was a decision based on theology. Was that wrong of him? Or is it inevitable that someone so deeply immersed in Catholic theology will see it affect how they judge?
CT: Oh, no. In fact, it works just the opposite. My view is simply that the important thing that it pushes you toward is adherence to your oath, which is to judge impartially. And my view is once you start sort of putting your personal beliefs and opinions into the law, or into the Constitution, you cease to have legitimacy, and I don’t think you should be on the Bench. Now I find that fascinating, though, that people would say things like that, and in the same breath, what I get, is the criticism that I don’t judge as a black judge, you know?
CT: I’m supposed to somehow include my race in my judging, but the religion, you don’t include in your judging. I don’t think you should include either in your judging, and I don’t. And in sixteen years on the Bench, well, I’m one week short of sixteen years. But in the almost sixteen years I’ve been on the Bench on the Supreme Court, I have never done that. And in the more than sixteen I’ve been a federal judge, I have never done that.
HH: You know, it seems like a blink, Justice Thomas. My first week of broadcast, my first year of broadcast, was when you were nominated…
HH: And so it’s been like a blink. And does it feel like that to you?
CT: You know, life seems like a blink, Hugh. I mean, it really is. I mean, I can’t…I told my wife that you know, people say that this has been difficult or that has been difficult. But compared to my grandparents, and all that’s happened, life has been an interesting ride, and it’s been very, very good. It’s almost been providential in so many ways. And by providential, I mean it has to have been for me and my brother on a fulfillment of my grandfather’s and my grandmother’s dreams for us.
HH: Now when you left the seminary as you said your grandfather was weeping in the garage, and then he hurls language at you which is really tough. “I’m finished helping you. You’ll have to figure it out yourself. You’ll probably end up like your no-good daddy or those other no-good Pin Point negroes.” That must have seared, Justice Thomas.
CT: (laughing) Oh, yeah, and I reacted that way. I think I was pretty upset. I was just…and at the same time, I was on my own.
HH: And when you go up to Holy Cross, you’re 20 years old, and the country begins to descend into chaos with the double assassinations of Martin Luther King and RFK. How did that work with getting thrown out to change you from being the seminarian of just a year before?
CT: Well, what it was, was I was, in those days, I was far more submissive. And subsequent to that, being at the Holy Cross, I tended to be much more reactionary, and sort of a part of the sort of black power movement, et cetera.
HH: You write on Page 47 about the anger of Southern blacks. “Every Southern black has known such moments, felt the rage that threatened to burn through the masks of meekness and submission behind which we hid our true feeling. It was like a beast that lay in wait to devour us. Some folks fought it with drink, others with prayer.” Is it still a problem, Justice Thomas?
CT: Oh, I think, and I can’t speak for everyone, but you know, when you live in a society that openly rejects you, sure I think people deal with it in different ways. And I think it can be something you can deal with in ways, it can also be self-destructive. And you can deal with it in ways like my grandfather did, where he became self-sufficient, or some people get crushed by it. I mean, it’s anything. I mean, if we were at war or something, if we were in some sort of crisis, storms or earthquakes, people deal with those things in different ways. People deal with their personal problems in different ways. And the point that I was simply making there was that with the whole race issue, which was chronic and steady and debilitating at times, people dealt with that in different ways.
HH: Justice Thomas, when you moved to Holy Cross, and you joined the black corridor, you write about the self-destructiveness of black separatism. I’m sure there are people listening to this, or watching your interviews, who are self-segregating on campuses into African-American identity circles. It happened when I was at the University of Michigan Law School in 1983. There was a black table and a black group. What’s your advice to those students as to whether or not that is a good or a bad thing for them?
CT: Well, I think we all sort of seek comfort zones, you know? Like people who tend to be wealthy tend to live, they want to live in neighborhoods of people who are of similar economic means, the people who, remember we used to have ethnic neighborhoods, whether it’s Italian or Irish. And I grew up in a black neighborhood. So there’s sort of this thing within us, almost, that we want to be around people who have things in common with us. And of course, when I was in the seminary, even though I was the only black kid most of that time, I always looked for something that I had in common with the other seminarians, and to try to be a part of the school. Well, my point to kids who are doing that now is that I understand why you’re doing it. I understand how it could be comforting. I understand how natural, how good a feeling that could give you. But in the end, you’ve got to come out in a world where you’ve got to deal with everybody. And my hope would be that when you’re in this environment, you’d at least try to find things in common with people that you don’t necessarily think you have things in common with. So I just, I would push them to try not to stay in that comfortably in, that sort of self-segregated environment.
HH: You write a couple of amazing passages about going to Harvard Square in 1970, shouting about Ho Chi Minh, supporting Angela Davis, downing a lot of cheap wine. It’s remarkable you got out of that period.
CT: (laughing) Well, you know, the point that I made was after I returned from that very same event, I initially was going to just say it was a civil disturbance. Then I read the contemporaneous newspapers that had described it as a full-scale riot. So it was a full-scale riot in Harvard Square. But when I returned to Holy Cross after that, I did go in front of the chapel at Holy Cross, and asked God to take that anger out of my heart, and that hatred out of my heart. And that was the beginning. That was my road to Damascus experience, where it’s just you see yourself for what you are, and what you become, and what you’re devolving into. And I was sort of descending into this abyss. So it was…and it was very confusing. I mean, you look, that’s 1970. I was 21 years old at the time, up in New England, away from my family, going through this very, very difficult time, and trying to figure it out. So yes, that was amazing that I did get out of it. But I think that’s God’s intervention.
HH: When you get into Yale Law School, you begin a sort of awakening to how Yale treats its black students differently from its Anglo students. Can you explain to people why you have a five cent cigar sticker on your Yale law degree?
CT: Well, actually, it’s three times that.
HH: Okay, fifteen cent cigar sticker…
HH: My notes aren’t so good.
CT: That’s, you know, first of all, let me just preface that by saying my classmates there at Yale were just fabulous with me. I got along with them, I did well there, you got to debate things and have great times. But you know, when it was time for me to leave to get a job, I could not get a job. And I realized that in the interviews, that one law firm, for example, starts asking me about what kind of courses I took in the 8th grade, and somehow, being totally not believing that the courses that I took in law school meant anything. And the fact that I couldn’t get a job at all with any of the major law firms suggested to me that my degree was being treated in a way that was quite different from the way that my classmates’ degrees from Yale were being treated.
HH: Page 87, you write, “Now I knew what a law degree from Yale was worth, when it bore the taint of racial preference. I was humiliated and desperate. The snake, the water moccasin, had struck.” When the Michigan affirmative action cases were being argued and debated a few terms ago, did you use this experience in your own judging, or in attempting to persuade the other judges about my alma mater’s preferences exercised at the law school there?
CT: No, not really. I just…that was more 14th Amendment analysis, and the question as to whether or not diversity was a compelling state interest. That’s separate and apart what my own reaction was, if indeed it was a compelling state interest. Even if I disagreed with it as a matter of policy, I would certainly have come out the other way.
HH: I see. Let’s go back to the fact I found it stunning that you were still making payments on your student loans when you arrived at the Supreme Court of the United States. You’ve never made much money, Justice Thomas.
CT: (laughing) Oh, the secret’s out now.
HH: (laughing) Right. Well, it’s all out through this whole book. Has that been a bother to you? Has that been a burden as you watched your Yale Law School friends, prior to your joining the Court, of course, but just skyrocket to the elite of America, and the sort of second-class jobs that were open to African-American graduates of Yale?
CT: No, because some of the blacks who graduated from Yale, particularly in subsequent years, did just fine. You know, I really didn’t harbor resentment toward others. It never entered my mind, to be honest with you. I would have preferred to make more, but those are decisions I made. And no, I did not get into sort of a comparative analysis with, or any kind of a comparison, or certainly no resentment or envy, of those who went on to do other kinds of work. What bothered me even later on, as people began to take pot shots at me, was that having refrained from ever resenting them for their advantages or their achievements, I was suddenly being attacked by the very people who’d had so many advantages.
HH: Do you support Holy Cross or Yale Law School with donations, Justice Thomas?
CT: I supported Yale with my loan repayments.
CT: And over the years, I have of course supported Holy Cross. But you know, that’s…as when you are where we are today, that gets more difficult.
HH: There’s a lot of humor in the book, including one story I’d like you to tell about Bobby Hill, your…not much of a mentor, when you were working for him in your 2L summer, and working on a murder trial, and you have to write, “I’d never been more relieved to see a white man in my life.” It’s really a very funny line.
CT: (laughing) Well, we were actually on, we were in Donaldsonville, Georgia, and of course, we had been called, because this prisoner, a 19 year old prisoner, had been charged with raping and murdering this woman in Donaldsonville. In fact, he had murdered an entire family. So we flew in, and both Bobby and I are black, and we go into a courtroom, and we wound up, we were an hour late, and it looked like a scene out of To Kill A Mockingbird, and I was petrified. Bobby didn’t show one hint of fear. And the judge was scowling, of course, the people, the family members were not looking very pleasant, and I wouldn’t, either, if I were a family member of someone who’d just been murdered. A whole family had been murdered. And I thought to myself, I said, we’re never going to get out of here alive. We’re going to all be lynched. (laughing) And Bobby, it didn’t bother him. Well, when I saw that prisoner come out and he was white, and the point I make in the book is I was never in my life so relieved to see a white man, because at least that would mean that we weren’t all black, and possibly we could get out of there without being harmed.
HH: I want to talk about two genuinely good men who come across in this book, both white. John Bolton and Jack Danforth.
HH: Were they colorblind, Justice Thomas, or just better than most whites at letting black people succeed on their own merits?
CT: I don’t know whether…you know, I eschew the notion that someone can be colorblind. I think the Constitution is. But they were more interested in human beings, and people as people. And Jack Danforth is such a good man, and he’s treated me like that my entire, the entire time I’ve known him. John Bolton was special, also, because John didn’t treat me different because I was black. It didn’t matter to him one way or the other. I was simply another student, another classmate, and I happened to be his neighbor, and he loved to argue. And I happened to disagree with him, and John is very effective. And no, I don’t think any of them, I can’t go so far as to say they’re colorblind or anything like that, but I know that color didn’t seem to matter to either of them.
HH: You make an admission against interest on Page 96. You owned a $35 dollar blue sport coat with red trim, and two pairs of pants, one red with blue trim, and one blue with red trim. Have you still got those clothes, Justice Thomas?
CT: (laughing) Well you know, the polyester of that era simply did not have that long a shelf life.
CT: And that was, I think, a $35, $36 dollar suit that I bought in St. Louis. And you know, it was the best I could do, and I thought it was fashionable, but you know, on further review, it seems pretty awful.
HH: Now Justice Thomas, you…that comes up in the course of talking about arguing as you did before the Missouri Supreme Court. And your first argument there, you’ve got a lawyer who’s not dressed right, who’s indulging in histrionics, and you write about your reaction to that. You are famous for not asking questions in oral argument. Is that an inclination from the days when you argued before the Missouri Supreme Court and saw a different approach to lawyering, and justices rendering questions and decisions?
CT: Well, I just think from my perspective, that that was, they judged, they allowed me to argue my case. And I think that we can allow lawyers to argue theirs. This is the appellate level. We know which questions, we’re the ones who ask the questions, we’re the ones who have written the opinions that are being cited, we’re the ones who’ve had just a tremendous amount of time to read the briefs, to study them, to think about them, et cetera. And oral arguments are only 30 minutes per side. And if you’ve had hours to study these issues, I don’t think we need to use up all of that 30 minutes asking these advocates questions. A few questions as they were, there were a few questions I asked when I first went on the Court, and I think if we return to that, that would be plenty.
HH: I was struck by a story in the middle of My Grandfather’s Son. You find a wallet when you’re on the attorney general’s staff in Missouri working for Jack Danforth. And you return it, and the guy checks the money that is there, and he finds it there, and he’s offering you five dollars, which you reject, and you write this. “I learned two lessons that morning. The first one was that honesty is what you do when no one is looking. The second one was more important. So much so, that I came to think of it as a defining moment in my ethical development. My needs, however great they might be, didn’t covert wrong to right, or bad to good. A man’s wallet wasn’t mine, no matter how much I needed the money, or how rude he happened to be. I often had occasion to remind myself in years to come that self-interest isn’t a principle, it’s just self-interest.” How does that affect your judging, Justice Thomas?
CT: Well, let’s go back to, on…let’s just say my views on things like affirmative action or anything else. The point that I’m trying to make is just because I think I would prefer this policy or that, it doesn’t mean it’s right, Constitutionally. Just because I would like this particular outcome, doesn’t mean the principle should be changed in order for me to achieve the outcome I might like. The principle is far more important than the particular outcome I’m interested in. So you don’t change, you don’t use your interests or your preferences to change principles to accommodate yourself. That’s the point I was trying to make. And also, the other point is this. So much of what we do, you see people who are interested, let’s say, in the outcome in a First Amendment case, or an abortion case, or a criminal case. They want a particular outcome. And it doesn’t matter, sometimes, how we reach that outcome, just as long as they get that. Or if they don’t get that outcome, they would criticize the opinion, because the outcome wasn’t right. Well, just because you want that outcome, it doesn’t mean that there is a legal principle that is defensible that is available to give you that outcome. And I just separate the two things are entirely different, and that’s what I’ve tried to live by, and that’s what I was trying to point out.
HH: The memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, extraordinarily candid in some regards, I found amazingly so. You had a drinking problem, a pretty bad one. Does that haunt you still?
CT: No, I mean, it really wasn’t one. And it wasn’t that, it was that I saw that that was coming down the road, and I got off the tracks. No, I wouldn’t say a bad one, I was just simply on the road to something that was best to be avoided. And I think consistent with what my grandfather would have done, you just simply say look, I’m done with that. And as far as something haunting me, absolutely not. I am very, very fortunate to have solved that problem before it got to be a big problem.
HH: There’s also a story in here, Judge Dowd’s letter, on Page 109, the power of encouragement. Do you practice this? And can you tell the audience about that?
CT: Well, Judge Dowd, again, going back to the judges I met in my early years in the attorney general’s office, I argued cases. You know, unlike at, say, Yale Law School where you got your report card, this was actually a judge in a real case, and a number of cases. And he wrote the attorney general early in my tenure to tell him how well I had done. And that letter was so positive, and it was so different from what I had gotten in law school, that I always kept that letter, held onto it, and probably it meant more to me in reading it than it possibly meant to him in writing it. In fact, maybe that’s not the case, because in years later, I spoke to him, he stood by it, and was very pleased that he had seen that early on. But yes, I do, not perhaps lawyers who practice before our Court, but I think it’s really good to try to encourage young people who are starting out in their careers. And that is one of the reasons for having written the book, to try to give them hope instead of sort of depleting their resources and their energies by constantly coming out with cynical negative things.
HH: Three anecdotes stood out here, probably because they just jumped at me. You ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 3:11. The best time I ever had was 3:12, so I’m a little bit jealous.
HH: But the fact of the matter is, you’re running along, and you say to yourself, God, this is hard to a Marine, and the Marine looks at you and says that’s what you asked for. Why do you remember that? Why put that in?
CT: (laughing) Well, because it’s true. And doesn’t that sound almost like my grandfather?
HH: Yes, it does.
CT: And doesn’t it sound, wasn’t he right?
HH: Yes, he is, yup.
CT: I mean, he didn’t enter the marathon for me. I entered it. He was absolutely right. What you’re saying is it sounds a little bit unsympathetic.
CT: Well, I mean, did I need sympathy at that moment, or did I need to finish the marathon?
HH: (laughing) Is that your attitude through almost everything, Justice Thomas?
CT: Well, I don’t know if it’s almost everything, but the point is that he was right.
HH: Yeah, he was. Bobby Knight is quoted in this book. I love…have you met Bobby Knight?
HH: Have you met Bobby Knight?
CT: Oh, Bobby Knight’s a friend of mine.
HH: Oh, I love that. I think that’s so wonderful. Here’s the quote. “Everybody has a will to win. What’s far more important is having the will to prepare to win.”
HH: When you talk with Coach Knight, do you think he’s gotten a fair deal from the American media?
CT: You know, that’s one basis that I met him on, was because of what was happening with him in the media. I just thought he was being treated rather shabbily. He had a player playing for him from Savannah, Georgia back in the 60’s named Joe B. Wright. And the thing I liked about him, and I started following him back when he first went to Indiana, was that his players graduated, and that he was tough on them, they ran his system, but it was disciplined. And I liked the fact that he was bright and he was no-nonsense. And he was good at what he did. Furthermore, I had a chance to meet with [Charles] Barkley when he was playing with the Phoenix Suns, I think. And Barkley was telling me that Coach Knight was responsible for his career, because he required him to lose weight. And Barkley, of course, didn’t at the time. But Coach Knight counseled him that he would be a great player at a certain weight, and that if he lost that weight, he would be one day possibly in the Hall of Fame. Well, of course, that happened. And Barkley lost the weight, maintained that weight through his playing career, and had an outstanding professional career.
HH: Now often do you talk to Bobby Knight?
CT: Infrequently. Probably once, twice a year. I mean, I had lunch with him a few weeks ago.
HH: Okay. Are you a sports fan? I know you were an athlete for a long time, a pretty good one. But are you a sports guy? A hoops fan or a football guy?
CT: I like college football. My team’s going through it. I’m a Nebraska Cornhusker fan.
CT: But we’re having a little bit of a difficult time right now. And I’ve been a Cowboys fan since Bob Hayes went there in 1964.
HH: Do you agree with me that USC, the University of Southern California, probably should not be allowed to play athletics, Justice Thomas?
CT: (laughing) I’m not getting…(laughing)
HH: You’re not going to touch that one? Okay. Let’s go on to…
CT: Well, they beat us pretty bad earlier this year.
HH: I know. That’s why I brought them up. 1985, you have an intellectual awakening. You’re at the EEOC, you develop a love of Churchill and Paul Johnson and Lincoln. By the way, have you read Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin?
CT: No, I have not. I’ve been working on a book during that time, and now that that sort of my time for reading is no longer being consumed by working on my own book, I think I can turn to some of these. I have not read that.
HH: You’ll love that, but you’ve got all these Straussians surrounding you…
HH: …and et cetera. Did you read The Crisis Of A House Divided? Has…
CT: Oh, yeah. That was Harry Jaffa.
HH: And so has Harry Jaffa had a big influence on you?
CT: Oh, I don’t know. And some of his disciples, Ken Masugi and John Marini and Larry Arnn, all those guys, they were just great. They were part of my intellectual development in the 80’s. And I thought they were just wonderful, and they certainly helped me figure out all sorts of things as we worked through the Declaration, and especially the whole notion of how a country could profess these ideals, and still have slavery.
HH: You know, Larry Arnn’s a pretty good friend of mine. It’s kind of scary that he’s one of your fellow conversants in this sort of thing.
HH: I also discovered that you wanted my job. I was the deputy director of OPM at the end of the Reagan years, and you wanted to go do that job, and that struck me as odd. You were not intending to be a judge.
CT: Oh, but you know what? I’m going to let you off the hook. It was OMB.
HH: OMB. Oh, that’s good, because that I can understand. On Page…
CT: Yeah, you know, Joe Morris and Don Devine, I think, were over at OPM at that time.
HH: And so when did you decide you wanted to be a judge, as opposed to, you know, the OMB is very, very different. It’s a life of activism, and now you’re stuck in chambers.
CT: Well, you know, I was in the executive branch, and that was fine. I didn’t mind running an agency, et cetera, but the reality was that I never thought about being a judge. That was something, as I relate in there, that was brought to me by Michael Uhlmann in 1989, to ask me to consider it when he was on the transition team, or heading up the transition team for the Justice Department for then-President-elect George Bush. And it was at that moment that it became a consideration.
HH: When you go through these two confirmations, and we’ll come back to that in a moment, it makes me, it turns my stomach to read this stuff again. Did you have a reaction you can share with us to the nomination and withdrawal of the nomination of Harriet Miers? It’s been the closest to the wreckage that you had to go through.
CT: No, I just, you know, anytime a human being is drawn into that process, it’s almost as though you’re witnessing something bad, and that human beings are treated almost as though they are objects. So yeah, I mean you’re sad anytime anybody’s caught up in that.
HH: And can that be saved? You know, Stephen Carter’s written a book about the nomination mess, and others have worried about it. Do you see there’s any way out of it now that the media has surrounded it, and the interest groups are out there with the long knives out for any nominee who could affect their agendas?
CT: Well, the…I don’t know. The Soviet Union fell, the Berlin Wall came down. I just can’t tell you that, I won’t say to you that it’s impossible. Again, I can’t see from where I am an end to it, but I can be hopeful that there’s an end to it. And that was one of the points I was trying to make, that people keep saying they want to re-fight all those battles. I’m not interested in that. My point is simply that we have lost control of a very, very important process in our society. You know, I’ll give you an example. My normal chambers are those of Byron White. And Byron White was nominated and sworn in within ten days. Now the question I have is this. It’s very simple. What is better for going through…what is better about our judiciary for putting people through the ordeal that we’re putting them through now, rather than doing it the way that Byron White experienced the process?
HH: He was a great justice, too. Do you have any justices whom you specifically admire who of course retired or gone from the Bench now, Justice Thomas?
CT: Well, I just mentioned one. I just loved the way Byron White conducted himself. I love the fact that he felt that the job was important, he felt that the Court was important, that the Constitution and our laws were important, but he wasn’t. that he was there to do his job and go home. And that’s what he did. He was just a good man. The other person, there are many others. I loved working with Chief Justice Rehnquist. I don’t want to belittle anyone by not mentioning them, but I’ll give you one from farther back in history, more than a century, would be Justice Harlan, especially for his dissent in Plessy V. Ferguson. Imagine what it would take in that era to stand against the crowd, to say what he had to say, that the Constitution was colorblind. He admits in there, if you go back and read that dissent, that he has his own biases, but that this document, this Constitution knows no class and knows no color. You see he was warmly received at the club after that was made public? That he was warmly received back home? I don’t know whether he was or not, but I think I doubt it. And that’s, by the way, to underscore the point I made about interest versus principles. He understood that it would have been in his personal interest to come out another way, but the matter of principle that he was defending had to do with the Constitution. So there’s a good example of the different between interest, or self-interest, and principle.
HH: Did the hard row you had to go, both as a young child, but also in the confirmation process, make you more confident when you strike a position, say…you’ve got a very lonely position on the dormant commerce clause, and I’m not going to explain that to people, but it’s basically, it doesn’t exist. And you’re the only one who’s got that. Does the where you came from and what you went through give you more courage to defend a lonely position than others who perhaps had an easier walk?
CT: Boy, that’s a really good question, Hugh. I…you know, I think it’s a combination of all of the above. First of all, my grandfather was a man who did not mind taking a position by himself, and standing up for that position. He would say when people criticized him on something that he thought was a matter of principle, well, they had a lifetime to get pleased. But also, I think that I did not want to get into the fray, and I was very candid about that in the book. I was afraid of taking these heterodox positions, and the fear was that you’d get beaten. But I do believe that we are called upon to face our fears. And I think over time, you face your fears, you get beaten, you stand up again, you face it again, you get beaten down, and then it becomes a matter of habit that you have to stand up. And so you’ve got a simple choice. You can be beaten, or you can be unable to look at the person in the mirror. And I’d rather just take the beating and be able to look at the person in the mirror.
HH: Have your friendships across political lines endured, Justice Thomas?
CT: Oh, yeah (laughing). I get along fine with people. I get along with all honest people who are trying to do good things. And there’s no better example of that than at the Court. I mean, I sit next to Justice Ginsberg, and we’ve never had an unkind word to say to each other, and she’s always treated me well, and I treat her well, and Justice Souter…I mean, I just don’t make decisions based on people’s ideological or political views. What I do make decisions on is whether or not people are malicious or negative or cynical or snide. I just don’t have much time for those sorts of negative things.
HH: Have you had a chance to read Jeff Toobin’s new book, The Nine?
CT: Oh, no, and I won’t have time.
HH: (laughing) Well…
CT: I know you didn’t think much of it.
HH: No, I didn’t, and I like Jeff Toobin, but I thought it was just very unfair to a number of your colleagues. And especially after Bush V. Gore, he paints this dysfunctional Court where the bitterness is going on and people are crying and crushed. Anything accurate in that account?
CT: (laughing) I didn’t see anybody crying. And the last I can remember is that after we announced the opinion, we all went upstairs and had lunch.
HH: He writes in there that the Court’s embarrassed by Bush V. Gore. Is that fair?
CT: I haven’t seen it (laughing). Look, I suffer from the disadvantage that I’m there every day.
CT: I mean, this would all probably make more sense to me if I wasn’t there. I’ve not seen any embarrassment, I haven’t seen any dysfunctional, any evidence that the Court is dysfunctional. And so I can’t, I really can’t comment on something that’s not happening.
HH: Justice Thomas, do you read the blogs at all?
CT: No….some of them. You know, occasionally I’ll read something, but not that much.
HH: And do your colleagues? Or are they still practicing Supreme Court jurisprudence the old fashioned way, via the briefs and not public opinion?
CT: Oh, you know, I can’t speak for them, but I certainly don’t pay any attention to it. That’s, you know, you can’t maintain positions that are counter-majoritarian if you get caught up in what public opinions are. I mean, if you look at some of our jurisprudence, for example, in the 8th Amendment area, there’s this sort of finger to the wind thing about changing on evolving standards of decency, et cetera. I don’t know you determine that.
HH: Are you…let me start with just you. Are you aware of the war? Ever since 9/11, have you been conscious that there are people in the world that want to destroy America?
CT: (laughing) How can you not be conscious?
HH: Well, I read some of the decisions and I wonder about some of your colleagues, so…
CT: Well, but you know, I’ve written in some of those, and I’m not going to get into them, but the point is simply this, that you know, I’m aware of what’s going on in the world.
HH: I was…when I was reading My Grandfather’s Son, I had an unusual question that I wrote down. Do you understand the jihadists who are these angry, young men, who are locked out of opportunity, who suffer discrimination of the worst sort, and who really have nowhere to go except into this sort of conflict?
CT: Well, I can’t say that I understand them. I do know that for example in this country, and I make this point in the whole portion of the book in 1968, when I talk about being drawn into this whole notion of black power, and that is that you know, when you feel locked out, you do gravitate toward things that feel, that seem empowering. At least that’s the way it was for me. I can’t speak for others. And so this black power notion made you feel, it was invigorating, and it made you feel empowered. And it could also be debilitating, as I found out later, or self-destructive. But I can’t speak for them, but I know in my own case, it was sort of something similar to that, but not nearly as, I guess, as universal.
HH: A couple of questions about Anita Hill, Justice Thomas. You write about her. I thought most of the interviews you’ve done have been way too focused on that, because the book is so much more than that. But have you ever thought about her motive?
CT: No, not really. I just…you know, and quite…I never really got into that, that much. I was disappointed, more than anything else.
HH: I want to try out my theory on you, and maybe you can comment or not, but that she had told little lies to explain failures that got out of hand, and she had to defend them. Does that make sense to you?
CT: That makes sense, but you know, again, I can’t, I have not gotten into whether or not…I could speculate, but I think it would probably, it would be remiss if I did so. But I was just very, very disappointed. And what I was more disappointed in was really that people who should know better, and who are in charge of the process…I don’t know if you have kids, Hugh, but you know, if your kids are fighting, and you, rather than settle them down and act as the parent and be the responsible party, that instead you get involved yourself, and you become one of them in this little battle and you encourage it, I don’t think you’ve been responsible. And in a sense, I thought that, I think that when you’re in a leadership position, you should be responsible, and should have said look, stop this. We’re not going to let you hijack this important process to settle scores, or to determine outcomes on the Court, et cetera. So that was really where my focus was.
HH: Throughout that process. George Herbert Walker Bush stood absolutely firmly behind your nomination. Did that surprise you?
CT: You know, no, because I met him face to face. And you know, I know people say , for example, that he said that I was the most qualified, and I tried to talk about that through Boyden Gray. But I choose to believe the President. He has been a man of his word. From day one, from the day we talked in Kennebunkport to this day, he’s been a man of his word. And through it all, he never wavered. And God bless him. And neither did Senator Danforth, again, a man of his word. And he said, the day I was nominated, he said Clarence, I will be devoted to you. He did that in much the same way that he said years before, he said Clarence, I will treat you the same as anybody else in my office. The man has lived up to his word, both of them. So you know, I can’t in any way criticize him. I can only say that I am so grateful to him, I’m grateful to Senator Danforth, and I am honored that he, that President Bush nominated me.
HH: Do you admire his son as a president?
CT: I admire anybody who stands up and leads. Now you can always disagree with a person here or there, but I admire anybody who gets in a position and actually tries to lead.
HH: Justice Thomas, a review of your book in the Wall Street Journal, assume that Anita Hill was telling the truth, but still went on to argue that the standard applied to you was very different from the one applied to Bill Clinton, who we know had great problems in the area of his personal conduct. Is that double standard because you were black, or because you were a black conservative?
CT: Well, first of all, I would take issue with the assumption, but…
HH: So do I.
CT: …be that as it may…
HH: So do I.
CT: I guess, you know, I’ve tried to point in the book that there is a special vitriol that is reserved for blacks who choose not to adhere to the black line. I mean, you can see it. I mean, I don’t care who it is. It could be Shelby Steele, Tom Sowell, Walter Williams. It could be anybody. There’s a special lot of vitriol that is reserved for us. And it has been, I found this out back in the 1980’s, the early 1980’s. And in fact, Juan Williams did an op-ed on me on December 16, 1980. And the vitriol has come my way since then.
HH: Are you an optimist about race in America, Justice Thomas, as you survey the wreckage of the black family, and it really is a wreckage when you look at the number of kids born into families without fathers, and the violence in the black on black crime which you reference in My Grandfather’s Son? Can this be remedied?
CT: I think we all are not, maybe not necessarily every day when we see the mounting evidence. It’s hard to be optimistic. But we can all be idealistic. And we can see something out there that is worth fighting for and striving toward. And I think we can be idealistic for these kids. I mean, think about it. What was it in front of my grandparents to make them optimistic? Was it the fact that everything was segregated? Was it the fact that they didn’t have an education? Was is the fact that most black men didn’t have jobs, regular job? Or black women were domestics? That didn’t make them optimistic. But they were idealistic, and they did have a hope. And I think we can do the same thing. So one of the reasons for writing this book was to reaffirm that hope, and to say there is reason to hope. And what I’m finding as you break through the din is that there are people who actually are showing that there is that hope, and that they are responding to that.
HH: Justice Thomas, I want to close by talking about an amazing paragraph in My Grandfather’s son on Page 254. You quote a prayer I’ve never heard before. Cardinal Merry del Val, praying his litany of humility.
HH: “Deliver me, o Jesus, from the fear of being humiliated, from the fear of being despised, from the fear of suffering rebukes, from the fear of being calumniated.” What’s the significance of that prayer in your life?
CT: Well, you know, what it does is that it…in Washington, or in any of these jobs, we can quickly become full of ourselves. We can quickly believe that it’s about us. So when the positives come in, we can actually think that that’s important, that we want more positives, that we want to be praised. When the criticism comes in, we can say oh, we’re diminished by the criticism, it hurts, I don’t want that. But if you’re truly, truly humble, and you see it’s not about you, that then, you can go on and be faithful to what you are there to do. You can live up to your oath. The job is not about me. The job is about the Constitution of the United States. It’s not about whether I’m praised, or whether or not I’m criticized. It is still the same Constitution of the United States. So I think that litany of humility sort of bleeds off all these things that really shouldn’t have a role in how you do your job in matters of principle.
HH: Justice Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather’s Son is a remarkable book, and I thank you for an hour spent discussing it, and I look forward to doing so another time when you’ve got even more time.
CT: Thank you so much, Hugh.
HH: A pleasure. Thank you, Justice Thomas.
CT: Have a good day now.
End of interview.