Today’s post was inspired by an opinion piece that appeared in the government-sponsored Magyar Idők titled “Historic swearing-in in Washington.” No, it wasn’t about President Donald Trump’s inauguration; it was about Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas administering the oath of office to Vice President Mike Pence. The author is László Lovászy, a university professor and the Hungarian member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In the article Clarence Thomas is portrayed as a man who is being “purposely ignored by the media both at home and abroad and about whom one can find barely any positive reference” in the literature on human rights. In the opinion of the author, the reason for this silence is Clarence Thomas’s well-known opposition to affirmative action and his pro-life position. This, he writes, was the reason for his difficulties in becoming a supreme court justice when “even accusations of sexual harassment” were raised against him. In the Trump era “we can expect to hear more about [Clarence Thomas] because, after all, he is the only black, Republican member of the Supreme Court who is opposed to positive discrimination on the basis of race.”
Those of us who know a little more about Clarence Thomas’ performance during his tenure in the Supreme Court are pretty certain that Thomas is not ignored because of his views on affirmative action and the question of abortion. He is ignored because, as a sharp-tongued critic said a few days ago, “Tell me one time that Thomas has done anything. Not just for black people—just done anything…. He is there because we see him. And he is alive because he is there. And he does stuff, like sit and stand and say, ‘I would prefer not to.’ But other than that, I don’t know what he does. Wait—I do know what he will be doing Friday: swearing in Vice President-elect Mike Pence, so there is that.” Indeed, because Mike Pence “has long admired Justice Clarence Thomas and deeply respects his judicial philosophy, dedication to the rule of law, and his historic service on the bench of our nation’s highest court,” he specifically asked Thomas do perform the honors.
Lovászy dwelt at some length on President Barack Obama’ harsh words regarding Thomas’s less than sterling record when in 2008 during the campaign he said: “I would not have nominated Clarence Thomas. I don’t think that he was a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation. Setting aside the fact that I profoundly disagree with his interpretation of a lot of the constitution.” Lovászy finds these critical words inappropriate and highly reprehensible.
Actually, Lovászy is not quite correct. In the last few months Clarence Thomas’s name has appeared quite a bit in the media–mind you, not as a shining light of American jurisprudence. A few months ago, when the new Smithsonian National Museum of African-America History and Culture opened its doors, visitors noted that Clarence Thomas ended up as a footnote to Anita Hill: “In 1991 Anita Hill charged Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment. This event transformed public awareness and legal treatment of sexual harassment. Outraged by Hill’s treatment by the all-white, all-male Senate committee, women’s groups organized campaigns to elect more women to public office.”
So, it looks as if the African-American organizers of the exhibit didn’t quite agree with Mark Paoletta, assistant counsel to President George H. W. Bush, who played a key role in the successful confirmation of Clarence Thomas. According to him, Thomas is “the second most important black person in the United States after President Obama…. Absolutely the top black conservative. I’d say even the top conservative.”
Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill will forever be linked in the American cultural memory. In fact, Hill’s sexual harassment charge was resurrected recently. First, when Joe Biden contemplated throwing his hat in the ring, the U.S. media discovered his role in the Senate hearings of Clarence Thomas. Politico admitted that Joe Biden has done a lot over the past 24 years in defense of women, but “that hasn’t erased the memories of how Biden presided over those hearings as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, blamed for doing little to stop the attacks on Hill and opting not to call three other witnesses who would have echoed Hill’s charges of sexual harassment.”
Soon after, an HBO movie on the hearings, Confirmation, was released. According to one of the reviews, “the two-hour film focuses on themes that feel hauntingly current, like slut-shaming and victim-blaming. It brings up the uncomfortable reality of how powerful men often treat the women around them.” Keep in mind that these words were written at the time that Donald Trump’s treatment of women was being widely discussed.
And in late November Moira Smith, vice president and general counsel at Enstar Natural Gas Co. in Alaska, came forth with her story about an unpleasant encounter with Thomas back in 1999 when she was a Truman Foundation scholar. Smith decided to go public because “Donald Trump said when you’re a star, they let you do it; you can do anything. The idea that we as victims let them do it made me mad…. Sure enough Justice Thomas did it with I think an implicit pact of silence that I would be so flattered and star-struck and surprised that I wouldn’t say anything. I played the chump. I didn’t say anything.”
The conservative media is still extremely touchy about Clarence Thomas. The National Review attacked Moira Smith, calling attention to the fact that she is a registered Democrat and her first husband served in Obama’s White House. Moreover, her second husband “is now a discredited high-profile Democratic politician in Alaska.” That kind of attack is only too familiar to Hungarians acquainted with similar Fidesz assaults on their opponents: to bring up an alleged fact that has nothing whatsoever to do with the case in point.
In any event, the Hungarian right is enamored with Donald Trump. And now that Pence chose Justice Thomas to administer his oath of office, right-wing journalists and scholars close to the government, like Lovászy, have suddenly discovered him. I doubt, however, that they will be able to make a great legal scholar out of him. Moreover, although this obviously doesn’t matter to them, in trying to make Clarence Thomas a hero, they are disregarding the feelings of the African-American community, which has rejected him as someone who has never represented their interests. Their heroine is Anita Hill, whose impact was tangible. In 1992 four women were elected to the Senate, and the number of women in the House rose from 28 to 47. Her testimony also raised people’s awareness of sexual harassment.