Supreme Bias

Published May 14, 2007

National Review, Vol. 59, No. 8

Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas
by Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, Doubleday, 422 pp., $26.95.

In their new biography, the Washington Post’s Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher examine, largely through the prism of race, the life of Justice Clarence Thomas. Between the opening and closing chapters — both of which explore the enmity that many blacks hold toward Thomas — Supreme Discomfort provides a mostly chronological narrative of Thomas’s life, including his upbringing in Georgia, his years at Holy Cross and Yale Law School, his “meteoric rise” in the Reagan administration, and the searing 1991 confirmation hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court. It also includes seven chapters on various aspects of his years as a justice.

Merida and Fletcher purport to offer an evenhanded, indeed empathetic portrayal of the man they say “has turned himself into the most successful victim in America.” But as this jab illustrates, they repeatedly and pervasively slant their account against Thomas on matters both small and large.

Thomas’s connection to his birthplace — Pin Point, Ga. — was, Merida and Fletcher note, “tenuous at best” because he moved to Savannah when he was six. Yet the authors fault him for rarely visiting Pin Point and for being “too far removed from the day-to-day struggles of this community.” Thomas’s youth, they say, “was defined more by the advantages afforded him than by the hard times he had to bear — a point often skirted in the telling of his story.” Ah, yes: Having his father abandon the family when he was a baby, having his family’s house burn down when he was six, then being left by his mother to live with his grandparents in a neighborhood with “shootings [and] ice-pick stabbings,” and enduring (and watching his grandfather endure) the belittling condescension of Savannah’s black elite — how could all that matter compared with living in a middle-class household and having “nine years of parochial school education”? Why, even for Thomas to resent how the black elite treated his grandfather is to “speak[] sneeringly of the leading lights in his community”! Doesn’t he know his place?

The authors’ rehashing of Anita Hill’s allegations at Thomas’s confirmation hearings is especially one-sided. Although they state in their prologue that “no definitive truth about what happened between them has emerged since the hearings,” the reader will have no doubt where Merida and Fletcher stand. In piling speculation upon speculation, they even recount an anecdote involving a family dinner three years after the hearing in which — according to a journalist guest who had met Thomas on a few occasions — Thomas mentioned one of Hill’s allegations and then laughed in a manner the guest thought lacked the requisite “righteous indignation”: “It was almost as if he were laughing because he got away with something,” the guest comments. Merida and Fletcher distance themselves from the guest’s extravagant inference at the same time that they somehow see fit to include it.

The book’s biographical narrative of Thomas’s ascent holds interest, notwithstanding the authors’ thinly veiled bias. The same cannot be said for Supreme Discomfort’s chapters on his Supreme Court years. One problem is that Merida and Fletcher appear to have only a crudely political understanding of the Supreme Court. For example, in discussing Thomas’s conclusion that the Constitution does not address abortion — and thus leaves to the political processes whether or not abortion should be permitted — they mistakenly charge Thomas with expressing “clear opposition to abortion.” Their description of the originalist jurisprudential principles that Thomas embraces likewise falsely contends that “in practice [originalism] produces what is best described as conservative legal outcomes.” In fact, in practice originalism recognizes that the Constitution leaves the vast bulk of policy issues to the people to decide through their elected representatives, who are free to adopt conservative or liberal positions (or any other position on the political spectrum) and to revisit those positions as they see fit.

Merida and Fletcher also make the naked — and, to me, very surprising — charge that Thomas’s judicial opinions are often regarded as “not up to snuff.” Much as some critics may disagree with the substance of Thomas’s analyses, it would be implausible to maintain that his opinions are not well crafted. The authors also spend a full chapter on the oh-so-tired and trivial matter of why Thomas rarely asks questions at oral argument.

Merida and Fletcher, who are both black, do offer some interesting insights on race issues, including class-based divisions among blacks and the tradition of black conservatism. But there is little reason to believe that they have provided a fair and accurate portrait of Thomas. As they note, Thomas replies to scurrilous charges that he is a puppet of Justice Scalia by joking that “I rarely see him, so he must have a chip in my brain.” One imagines that he would have a similar response to their claim to see into his supposedly “divided soul.” The authors lament that Thomas never granted their persistent requests to interview him. From the evidence of their bias against him, Thomas’s decision was yet another sound judgment by an outstanding jurist.

— Mr. Whelan is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a regular contributor to National Review Online’s Bench Memos blog.

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