Book Review: My Grandfathers’ Son

Yesterday, Justice and Mrs. Clarence Thomas presented us with signed copies of his new memoir, My Grandfather’s Son. I looked forward to reading it, and took the opportunity to read the book in its entirety today on two flights and a weather-delayed layover in Charlotte. Thanks to bad weather on the last leg of my flight, the turbulence of the flight hit just as I began reading about the turbulence of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court.
The book provides a fascinating and at times touching portrait of a man who had to fight against anger most of his life, and most of that within himself. He talks frequently about having to have his anger on a leash that occasionally slipped. His drinking found its source in his anger and insecurities, the frustration of segregation and racial hatred and the effect it had on his family, and anger at the man who raised him as his son. Thomas discovers later in life how destructive all of this anger can be, especially to those who are closest to him, and he mostly works his way from anger to acceptance — at least until those confirmation hearings.
Most people will focus on Thomas’ recap of the confirmation process, and it does take up the last eighty pages of a 289-page book, so it’s not an unfair focus. It’s certainly proving to be the most noteworthy. Given that it will change few minds, however, I think his recounting of his life journey prior to his appointment to the bench is much more fascinating and introspective. His transformation from poor boy to seminarian, to radical to Danforth staffer, and from Monsanto executive to EEOC chair shows the courageous and often lonely path taken by Clarence Thomas throughout his life.
Thomas gets almost brutally honest with himself, especially when it comes to his relationship with his grandfather who raised in with strict discipline and not much outward affection. Thomas deliberately referenced him in the title, believing him to be the man most responsible for his success. However, Thomas also talks about his own inability to forgive the man his hard nature, the very quality that allowed him to raise Thomas and his brother and give them the tools they would use for success later. Time would run out before Thomas could bridge that gap, and his pain is palpable, as is his guilt.
His honesty comes through in other areas as well. One anecdote especially comes to mind, considering that it involves a well-known conservative figure, John Ashcroft. He first started working with Ashcroft when he served on John Danforth’s staff, and he recalls his envy at Ashcroft’s success. Even though Ashcroft treated him with Christian kindness, Thomas’ anger at the perceived inequality led him to react immaturely and lash out unkindly, which Ashcroft steadfastly ignored — and Thomas talks about the guilt he still carries for his treatment.
His rites of passage are recounted with clarity and analytical precision. He talks about his views on race, and how they never really fit anyone’s mold. He actually speaks with some appreciation of Black Muslims in his youth, not for their separatism or their support for violence but for their message of self-reliance. It’s a lesson his grandfather taught him, and even though for years he relied on his blame for white people for the status of his people, he eventually realized that he had a completely different idea about how blacks should free themselves from their oppression.
Thomas told us in our dinner that he isn’t angry and that this isn’t an angry book. It is a book about anger, however, and I would say that the final quarter of the book does slip into anger at the humiliation of his confirmation hearing. Who could blame him? After a life of care in his professional life — he talks often about the lessons of To Kill A Mockingbird and his grandfather about any hint of impropriety being fatal for a black man in Georgia — an enormous smear involving allegations of sexual impropriety threatened to provide a “high-tech lynching” to his reputation, and all of the hard work of his grandparents in their support of him.
Having established an honesty and self-deprecation in the first 200 pages, his defense of the Anita Hill allegations come through as very credible. Although he claims to have released the anger over this betrayal and the obvious hostility and duplicity of the Senate Judiciary Committee, especially Joe Biden and another Senator “against whom allegations of sexual impropriety had been made” — a rather clear reference to Ted Kennedy — he clearly relishes giving his side of the story. He does not mince words, either, using the same blunt approach that he uses for his own introspection earlier in the memoir.
As I said, the honesty of the book is its most compelling quality. I think Captains Quarters readers will find it enlightening, and find Clarence Thomas the man something very different than Clarence Thomas the media-narrative persona.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: My Grandfathers’ Son

  1. I suspect Thomas’ life lessons are not going to be eye openers for certain of us, given that the Prayer of Humility seems somewhat central now to Thomas’ vision of how a person should view the world.
    What person has not at some point chafed at the lot given to them by God?

  2. On raising boys:
    A hundred years ago, parents seemed to know that you can’t be a boy’s “role model” AND his best friend–at least not until you’re both adults. Today, people try to do both, and it never works. Your father (or grandfather if there’s no father) is there mostly to bully you into doing the right thing, until you become smart enough to bully yourself into doing the right thing. Some boys take longer than others. Your best friend on the other hand, is there to screw up, so you can laugh at him and learn what not to do in the same situation. That’s never a good job for a father.

  3. First, there are real conservatives in America!
    And, they’ve elected chaps to office who have promised them the moon. Which is very hard to deliver.
    But when the Elder Bush selected Clarence Thomas,and said he was the best man for the job; I think people thought that line was a hoot. And, a half.
    And, if the liberals had won?
    Affirmative action would have stopped being a vehicle for individual courage. And, advancement. Through all of life’s hard knocks.
    For years and years, the liberal media took pot shots at Thomas. Mostly, because they could paint whatever they wanted. He hardly ever spoke during Orals. And, it was here that the comments were at their worst.
    Oh. Then they said he just copied Scalia. He was nothing more than a rubber stamp.
    Then, I read a wonderful book on the Supreme’s; Supreme Conflict, by Jan Crawford Greenberg. She just opened my eyes! If anybody was setting the course between Scalia and Thomas; it goes to Thomas to have been in the lead!
    Creating cyphers out of judges has always been the “parvenue” of the pundit industry. Poisoned pens.
    While Thomas just bided his time.
    Today’s environment is going to be taking a much closer look at the whole credential fiasco; that befell universities. Lost God. Lost their way. Lost everything. (So, that when Thomas says he put a 15-cent cigar sticker on his Yale degree, he told ya it was just a bit better than worseless. But not by much.)
    And, by standing his ground, he got CONFIRMED. He met the one standard that counted.
    The rest? It will be up to history to judge the performances, en banc, of the whole lot. Rehnquist axed the “long winded” conferences that Burger held. He was a “no nonsense man.” But agreements would allude him. For a Chief, he found himself in the minority way too often to be called “effecive.”
    Though he did teach the court the behaviors necessary to push papers along.
    I don’t think you can judge performance on abortion, either. For some? It’s such a strong topic they go as nuts as the prohibitionists did; when the subject was alcohol.
    IF we can just move off this personal stuff; and realize the court should be dealing with real crimes; not imaginary or religious stuff at all; we’ll probably get better judges confirmed down the line.
    In the future, it’s possible the crap we take from our congress critters will find a window from which it can fly out of, and depart.
    One liar is bigger than another. (Oh, with Tom Harken going after Limbaugh, for the phony troop comment; about Jesse MacBeth … When Tom Harken “claimed” navy combat experience in Vietnam. But he never got furter out than Japan. Senators bragging about achievements they’ve never accomplished is on par-with Larry Craig’s wide-stance.
    Go ahead. Worry about abortion. While queer ducks like Larry Craig bait the trap to get themselves elected, with that stuff.

  4. Like you say, it’s not going to change anybodies mind.
    So, he lived alone in a small apartment for several years in DC, between the time of the divorce and when his son moved in with him. Drank a little too much, nipped it in the bud. Felt depressed. No sex. No drugs. No rock and roll. Where did all these money problems come from?
    Head of the EEOC is a spoils job. Good money. Good bennies. Expense account. This guy lived like a church mouse.
    I don’t know what went on with Anita but I don’t think she made it up out of thin air. On the other hand, he isn’t the predatory type.
    Who knows?
    He is the least inquisitive and most predictable member of the Court.
    The idea that he owes nothing to affirmative action is laughable. His belief that affirmative action harms rather than helps, is correct.

  5. What happened was Anita Hill got blindsided by her “friends.” They knew that she had worked for Clarence Thomas and had complained about sexual harrassment on the job. They put two and two together and got twenty-two.
    Anita Hill complained about sexual harrassment on the job before she went to work for Clarence Thomas.
    Her friends , including a judge, told her that if she would make a statement about Clarence Thomas and his improper behavior, no one outside the Senate committee would know about it. They told her that, faced with charges of sexual harrassment, Clarence Thomas would withdraw his name. They assured her that Clarence Thomas would not be told the name of his accuser.
    Anita Hill, a graduate of Yale Law School, a licensed attorney and a law professor, agreed to participate in this “star-chamber” proceeding. When Clarence Thomas refused to withdraw and the Senate Committee found Anita Hill’s original statement insufficient, Anita Hill’s friends “outed ” her.
    At that point, Anita Hill was in great trouble.
    Like Martha Stewart, she could be charged with making a false statement to the FBI investigators as well as signing a false official statement to the Senate Committee. She faced the loss of her position, the loss of her license and jail time.
    Although a majority of the committee and, later, of the full senate, believed Clarence Thomas, no action was taken against either Anita Hill or her associates. These associates included two United States Senators and their staffs. It is believed that the leak of Anita Hill’s name and accusation was made by one of the staff members.
    It is interesting to note that the only support for Anita Hill’s statement that Clarence Thomas had sexually harrassed her was that of a friend, a judge who lived on the West Coast. This person made statements to the FBI and, later, to Senate investigators about receiving a phone call from Anita Hill about the sexual harrassment.
    The judge stated that Anita Hill had told her that Clarence Thomas was sexually harrassing her. The problem with the judge’s testimony was that, at the time the judge stated that Anita Hill had called her, Anita Hill was still working for a private law firm and had not gone to work for Clarence Thomas.

  6. Antta Hill lied about Thomas – to aid her “friend’s” political agenda – and could (should) have gone to jail for her lies. Her ‘judge’ friend should have gone to jail too – because he lied, then later fessed. (She had not worked for Thomas yet when she called him – maybe complaining about her prior sexual harassment, if it were true.)
    Bottom line – liberals lie, a lot… if they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so.

  7. Interesting post longwalker. I have two questions.
    Was their any corroboration of Hill’s complaint?
    Was Hill financially rewarded for her contribution to the cause?

  8. RE: Terry Gain (October 3, 2007 6:53 AM)
    “Was their any corroboration of Hill’s complaint?”
    According to Laura Ingraham (now a radio personality/pundit/author) who worked for, is a 20 yr associate of, personal friend of, and fully informed on the Anita Hill smear of Justice Thomas, there has not been any corroboration of Hill’s complaint. Ninety women were interviewed according to the leaked FBI file and none could substantiate or corroborate the false allegation.
    As I understand it, no one has ever validated in any way the charge, yet the smear lives on in some capacity as evidenced by some comments on this blog and assuredly others. In that sense Hill and her political hacks won the “when was the last time you beat your wife” battle. Fortunately, Thomas won his war and now has others to help him re-fight that old war and engage in any new ones now that other venues for challenging debate have opened up.
    While I may or may not agree with this Justice’s rulings, I know an obscene injustice when I see one. Thankfully history will record that a political, perhaps personal, injustice aimed at him failed, that his integrity was maintained, and that he faithfully served the Nation.

  9. AD
    If your answer to my first (spelling error ladened)question is correct, as I believe it is. (My question was nearly rhetorical as I did not recall anyone stepping up to support Hill’s allegations- which would be surprising if they were true.) But history will not get the whole story unless my second question is thoroughly investgated and answered.
    I am not suggesting Hill was paid off. That would be a smear. I’m just wondering if she was. I’ve heard she’s wealthy. I do not know if that is true. Does anyone have some facts to share?

  10. Clarence Thomas and the Treatment of Conservative Minority Judges
    Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is coming out with an autobiography entitled: “My Grandfather’s Son”, which is already opening up old wounds. For those not old enough to remember, Thomas was viciously attacked by liberals and Democrats during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. His experience is typical of black conservatives and continues to this day in America. It is instructive to revisit his case; that is why I feel his book will serve a useful purpose as we continue to struggle with issues of race in our country and examine the ugliness that is racial politics.
    Thomas was born poor in Georgia, raised by his grandfather, but had the opportunity to go to college and escape his poverty. He later developed a conservative philosophy which, among other things, turned him against Affirmative Action. He entered into government service with the Reagan Administration and served in the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was under George HW Bush that he was nominated to the Supreme Court, making him the 2nd African-American to be so nominated after Thurgood Marshall, who had retired.
    There was a major problem confronting Thomas’ nomination, however. Unlike Marshall, who was a famed Civil Rights lawyer and a liberal on the bench, Thomas was a black conservative-one who had written and spoken out against things like Affirmative Action. This was something that liberals and the traditional black leadership could never let stand. Thomas’ nomination was vehemently opposed by the Democrats in Congress, trying as always to please their left-wing base. In addition, the National Organization of Women opposed Thomas due to his opposition to abortion.
    Initially, there was very little for the Democrats to hang their hats on. They tried to argue that Thomas was unqualified, an ironic argument from the faction that supported Affirmative Action. They tried to paint him as a hypocrite, who had actually benefitted from Affirmative Action in his own academic and professional career, but now wanted to deny it to others. They tried unsuccessfully to pin him down on how he would rule on abortion. Thomas appeared to be heading toward confirmation.
    It was at this point that someone brought out Anita Hill, an African-American law school professor at the University of Oklahoma, who had previously worked under Thomas at the Department of Education and later, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill was charging that while under Thomas’ supervision at DOE, he subjected her to a continuing ordeal of improper sexual innuendos-in other words, sexual harassment. Now the opposition to Thomas was in full swing. As an entire nation watched her testimony on TV, Hill, an impressive witness, recounted that Thomas had used improper language in her presence, referring to porn movies with a well-endowed male star named ” Long Dong Silver”, references to finding a pubic hair on his coke can, etc. Thomas, in an impassioned rebuttal, denied Hill’s charges in front of Congress, then angrily charged the Democrats on the panel with a “High Tech Lynching”. In one angry exchange, Thomas defied the effort of left-wing Senator, Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH) to challenge his (Thomas) character.
    It was brought out in the hearings that, in spite of the alleged behavior, Hill had followed Thomas on to a subsequent job at the EEOC. Further, there was scant corroboration for Hill’s testimony. She had apparently complained to a couple of friends that she was having trouble with a supervisor at work, but no one else could offer concrete testimony as to Thomas’ alleged behavior to Hill. In the end, it came down to a matter of “he said, she said”. The Republicans still backed Thomas.
    Sad as this episode was, there were a couple of moments of comedy. At one point near the end of the hearings, a befuddled Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) remarked, “I still don’t know what Long John Silver has to do with all this”. And then there was Sen Ted Kennedy (D-MA), the hero of Chappaquidick and famed defender of female virtue. During the hearings, he was as quiet as a doormouse, slouched in his chair almost out of view. After all, what could he say?
    Yet, when he stood to give his final remarks in front of the podium, Kennedy reverted to his tub-thumping, hypocritical ways-perhaps egged on by his constituents who demanded that he take a stand. Reading from a stack of papers and turning a new page after every two or three sentences (they must have been written in 100 point font), Kennedy condemned Thomas, announced that he believed Anita Hill and that he would vote no on confirmation.
    In the end, Thomas carried enough votes to win confirmation, but the attack on his character had left him and his wife, Virginia, bitterly wounded. Thomas still sits on the Supreme Court today, and he has been a consistently conservative justice along with Antonin Scalia. Yet, from time to time, he is still subject to personal attacks from the left and from the “traditional black leadership”. In spite of the attacks, he has not retreated from the philosophy he believes in. Those who know him describe him as a decent, congenial and gracious man. Laura Ingraham , a conservative talk show host who clerked under Justice Thomas, describes him as one of her closest friends. In his free time, Thomas often speaks before groups of troubled youth and gives them advice on how to turn around their lives.
    In the wake of the book, both Thomas and Hill stand by their testimony in 1991. We may never know what actually transpired between the two of them. There is an interesting contrast, however, between the Hill-Thomas issue and that of Bill Clinton and Paula Jones. Regardless of what one thinks of Jones and the merits of her claim against Clinton, she did in fact, have more corroboration for her charges than Hill. In the Jones matter, she had the testimony of the Arkansas State Trooper, who, under orders from Clinton, approached Jones and escorted her to a hotel room to meet Clinton. Of course, what happened in that room is still open to doubt, but Anita Hill, in her charges against Thomas, lacked anything close to that kind of corroboration. Yet, the Democrats treated Hill as a noble heroine who spoke the truth. A few years later, many of the same Democrats dismissed Paula Jones as “trailer park trash”.
    Perhaps more importantly, Thomas’ experience has been repeated against other black conservatives, and Latino conservatives as well. Just within the realm of judicial nominees, look at what was done to Miguel Estrada, nominated to the Supreme Court by George W Bush. He was attacked as not being sufficiently Hispanic because he immigrated from Honduras and rose up quickly in terms of his socio-economic condition. No, the Hispanic groups like La Raza were looking for someone who came up on the mean streets of the barrio-and more importantly- shared their world-view (liberal). Estrada was subjected to all kinds of attacks, his nomination was delayed and delayed until he just gave up and quit the process. All the while, his ailing wife, who was visably upset at the treatment her husband was getting, was being pushed over the emotional edge (She eventually committed suicide).
    Then there was Janice Rogers Brown, a black conservative nominated by George W Bush to the District Appeals Court in Washington-after the Supreme Court, considered the most important court in the land. Her nomination was similarly held up because she was conservative. Only after considerable wheeling and dealing between the parties was she allowed to be confirmed. It should be noted that these nominations were during the time Republicans were in the majority. Both of these nominees had the votes. The Democrats, however, used procedure to deny them a straight up or down vote that would have quickly confirmed them.
    Why have these good and decent people been subjected to these outrages? Because, judicial appointments are important in forming our society. The philosophy of our judges affects virtually all segments of our daily life in relationship to our law. As for the Supreme Court, these are life-time appointments (as are all Federal judges). In other words, a Supreme Court judge usually far outlives the president who put him/her on the bench. Both parties know this. All political interest groups know this. This is why the stakes are so high. The Democrats, much more than the Republicans, have resorted to a slash and burn approach to deny a conservative president the chance to get a conservative on the bench. In the case of minority judges, the Democrats, the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, and other race-based groups know that the last thing they want to see is a conservative minority rise to the top and serve as a role model-an alternative if you will for minority youth.
    That they would resort to character assassination is beyond contempt. It shows much more about their own character(s) than those that they target.
    gary fouse

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