Back during the presidential campaign, George W. Bush called Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia his favorite Supreme Court Justices–a remark widely interpreted at the time as just smoke-blowing in the direction of the right. Guess what–it’s time to start taking Bush at his word, especially when it comes to Thomas.
Just weeks after the inauguration, Justice Thomas has emerged as the new Administration’s judicial patron saint. The top three officials of the Bush Justice Department–Attorney General John Ashcroft, Solicitor General-designate Theodore Olson and Deputy Attorney General-designate Larry Thompson–are all close Thomas friends. Thomas even officiated at Olson’s wedding (also Rush Limbaugh’s) and Ashcroft’s swearing-in. While Thomas’s wife, Virginia, shovels Heritage Foundation résumés into the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue personnel department, his former clerk Helgard Walker sits in the White House counsel’s office.
After the Court’s Florida decision, Thomas told a group of high school students that his famous, baffling reluctance to ask questions on the bench grows out of his childhood fear of being mocked for speaking Gullah (a black language) in an all-white seminary class. Maybe, but the vindicating presence of so many friends in the White House seems to have given the Supreme Court’s Garbo new confidence: After nearly a decade on the sidelines, in mid-February Thomas emerged into the Washington spotlight at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) with a Castro-length jeremiad on what he views as continuing liberal efforts to stifle him and other conservative culture warriors.
When Thomas was nominated for the Court, some African-American and liberal voices argued that his biography as a black man gave hope that with time he would moderate his far-right views on affirmative action, welfare and civil rights. His rulings make their own testimony, of course, but if that AEI dinner speech is any indication, what is most remarkable about Thomas is that he has scarcely changed at all, either in preoccupations or politics. The themes of his speech–a hodgepodge of cherry-picked libertarian quotes from the likes of Hamilton, Montesquieu and Thomas Sowell–were instantly familiar to anyone who waded through his preconfirmation writings as the Reagan Administration’s dismantler of equal opportunity enforcement. Back then, he praised sports and business as the great crucibles of character in a free society. In his AEI speech he told of how “the great UCLA basketball coach JohnWooden taught his players how to play the game by first teaching them how to lace up and tie their shoes.” Back in 1991, Thomas dodged uncomfortable questions about his friend Jay Parker, a flack and registered agent for the apartheid-era South African government. In his speech he went out of his way to praise Parker as his mentor.
Most of all, what has remained consistent about Justice Thomas is his swirling hornet’s nest of resentment–that strange combination of megalomania and self-pity embodied in his famous denunciation of his confirmation hearings as a “high-tech lynching.” At AEI he favorably compared himself and other conservative culture warriors to Dimitar Peshev, a heroic Bulgarian civil servant who during World War II secured the rescue of Sofia’s Jews at considerable personal risk. Thomas remains obsessed with the idea of conservatives as persecuted victims–which, since those conservatives now run the White House, Justice and Congress, raises questions about his hold on reality. But the question currently being floated in Washington judicial circles is whether Thomas, not the oft-mentioned Scalia, is Bush’s favored successor to Chief Justice William Rehnquist.