Earlier this evening, I attended a two-hour dinner event at the Heritage Foundation with Justice Clarence Thomas, his wife Virginia, and a small number of other bloggers and New Media members. It confirmed for me that the media has never gotten a grasp of the man under the robes, possibly because they have not spent even the small amount of time with him that we did tonight and that Steve Kroft did with his 60 Minutes interview -- and they have missed a real story from that failure. And while the nominal reason for the evening was his book launch -- and we each received autographed copies -- it turned into a wide-ranging conversation that had little to do with the book.
The evening started with Justice Thomas greeting us, taking pictures and chatting us up a bit. He asked me what I wrote about at Captain's Quarters, and I replied, "Just about anything -- politics, culture, foreign policy, and Notre Dame football," at which he let loose his unique gust of laughter. "Notre Dame football?" he asked incredulously. "You'd better stick with foreign policy this year!" (Obviously, his wisdom came through immediately.) The twenty or so people who attended the dinner all had a similar experience; Justice Thomas made a great effort to put us at ease, which he did all night long.
He told us that he had deliberately wanted to spend the first day of his book launch with New Media journalists, noting specifically that he felt good about avoiding the Supreme Court press on the occasion. Thomas explained that he wished we'd been around in 1991, that we could have made sure that the facts of the case came to light. We could have worked around the mainstream media narrative, he told us, and stated several times that he was very impressed with the work we did.
The book represents his effort to reach people through his life story, Thomas explained. He has now reached a point in his life where he wants to let go of some tasks, such as travel and outreach efforts which have taken up most of his spare time from the Court. He has tired of the grind and wants to spend more time with his family. He loves his work on the Court, however, and sees himself remaining on the court for the rest of his life. In fact, Bill Kristol teased him about running for President, and I believe his exact words were, "Oh, hell no."
Thomas had that kind of blunt speaking style, but without any rancor or bitterness. He came across as a man who had nothing left to prove and no criticisms to answer. In fact, Thomas mentioned that he has never had any unpleasantness in his personal appearances. A couple of times at universities, faculty members have walked out on him -- "it's always the faculty and never the students," he emphasized -- and said, "Whoop-de-doo! Cowards run. It's what they do."
He got perhaps his biggest laugh when answering one of my questions. I had asked him if he agreed that some justices have "grown" on the bench, without being specific, although Kristol encouraged him to get very specific. Thomas demurred on the specificity, but took some time to give a thoughtful answer. He agreed that the phenomenon exists, and that he sees it as a pressure of incentives and disincentives. Some justices worried about how law schools and other elites will perceive them, and begin to develop opinions with an eye to prestigious invitations and awards -- and the punishing lack of same if they do not evolve towards the accepted wisdom of academics. "I wouldn't get an invitation from Columbia University unless I was a Middle East dictator with nuclear weapons," he gave as an example, again with his trademark booming laugh.
My lasting impression of Clarence Thomas is this: he is his own man, and he is beholden to no one. With that, he has the confidence and self-satisfaction that allows him to be engaging, gracious, honest, and open. That the media and a good part of the nation could have missed this amazing and impressive man should anger and sadden the American populace. I will not ever forget the dichotomy between the public image of Clarence Thomas and the real human being I met tonight.
UPDATE: Other bloggers have started posting about the meeting. Kate O'Beirne has a post up at The Corner, and my friend Paul Mirengoff has his remarks at Power Line. Be sure to read these -- we have all keyed on different aspects of the evening.