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But to coach Thomas in such heavily deferential courtesies, when the mutual mockery and cynicism were absent, was to inflict damage on him yet again -- above all because he was already intellectually muzzled. Had Thomas been able to perform theoretical legal pirouettes around the senators, had he simply been free to talk eloquently and extensively about the issues of greatest concern to him, then the formulae of excessive and humorless deference might not have mattered so much. But in this case, they mattered dreadfully.
The empty-headed black in an empty suit; the dumb, shifty, evasive black now turned into (in George Will’s words) a "cringing and groveling" black -- a black tugging his forelock before Massa, a black who knows his place.
4. The "Character Issue. " A more complex, and a more complexly stupid, enterprise -- and this one allegedly dedicated to the protection of Thomas -- was the attempt to establish the nominee as a paragon of virtue.
The original lies about Thomas’ nomination, namely that he was the "best" person for the Court and that he had not been chosen because he is black, bore bizarre fruits. Absent a forthright statement of intellectual and political purposes, the goal became to defend both Bush and Thomas against the liberal interpretation of the nomination. George Bush knew, as did the entire political universe, that his use of the Willie Horton ad and his stated opposition to quotas had generated unceasing charges from liberals that he was a "racist" and that Clarence Thomas would be tagged as yet another black exploited by Bush for political purposes -- a Willie Horton in reverse.
So a defensive solution designed to outfox liberals in what Republicans thought were liberal terms was devised. According to The New Republic’s Sidney Blumenthal -- a forthright critic of both Bush and Thomas -- Bush asked whether Sen. John Danforth, a known and loyal friend of Clarence Thomas, would "go to the mat" for his prot�g� if Thomas were nominated to the Court. Danforth said yes, and that, reports Blumenthal, was Bush’s "decisive moment." It meant to Bush that his nominee would be protected "by a figure of moral stature," one widely respected by U.S. senators. Blumenthal elaborates: "Part of the reason it has been difficult to associate Thomas with Bush’s racial tactics, and thus isolate him, is that the leading critic of such gambits happens to be Jack Danforth."
It became Danforth’s appointed mission to orchestrate a chorus of witnesses, all proclaiming Thomas the embodiment of two particular virtues, chosen, obviously, because they are crucial virtues for a justice of the Supreme Court: "fierce independence" and "integrity." Patiently, endearingly, Danforth marshaled his little legion of personal witnesses from different periods of Thomas’ life to attest fervently, all in the same language, that Clarence Thomas, as child, as boy, as youth, as young man, and as grown man, revealed "fierce independence" and "integrity." And for all I know it may have been true. The reason I don’t know, and that nobody could know from this extended photo op and mass recitative, is that "independence" and "integrity" -- "fierce" is lovely but unnecessary -- are virtues of mind, virtues of intellect. Eviscerated of ideas, those words meant exactly nothing. The famous character issue was an attempt to assert character without intellectual content.
These testimonials certainly meant nothing to the Judiciary Committee liberals who were the objects of the anti-intellectual charade; who never for a moment forgot that they were fighting the ideas that Clarence Thomas might or would bring to the Court; who knew full well that Thomas had been chosen because he is black; and who knew, finally, that Thomas had opposed affirmative action’s double standards and preferential quotas. And since, to conventional liberals, such views are racist, not a liberal brain cell was budged by this two-week long photo op, which boiled down to a constant loving cry that Thomas was "good."
By the time the parade of devoted witnesses shepherded by Danforth was over, irretrievable damage had once again been done to Clarence Thomas. Thomas was not only the emptyheaded black in an empty suit....He was not only a dumb, shifty, evasive black….He was not only a cringing and groveling black who knew his place…. But he was a good black, a willing pawn in the hands of conservative white masters.
Did the Republicans do this on purpose? No. This came, yet again, from the belief that ideas were dangerous, and that defensive tactics, as opposed to a bold hoisting of one’s own flag, were safer. Of course, that is about as safe as a Lynching, but I anticipate myself.
5. The Abortion Issue. Customarily, this is simply classified as one manifestation of the evasion strategy. But it had a status of its own. It played a unique role at the hearings, and it produced two particularly damaging stereotypes of Thomas.
Legalized abortion was, for the Democrats, a substitute for the problem they were most frightened to discuss, one of the problems that could destroy their future as a party -- the mounting animosity of white workers and middle-class citizens toward double-standard affirmative action, which gives preferential treatment to blacks over whites in hiring and in school admissions. While it was continually discussed at Democratic party councils, and while a major campaign was being planned to regain the votes of the fleeing working- and middle-class whites, this was not an issue the Democrats wanted to discuss at the televised hearings. And they certainly did not want Americans to see a strong and thoughtful black man -- a black Republican -- advocating equality of access for the disadvantaged and colorblind, meritocratic solutions. So the Democrats evaded the issue.
As Juan Williams wrote in The Washington Post, "For all the verbiage, the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Clarence Thomas were much more interesting for what wasn’t said than for what was....Affirmative action is the dog that hardly barked."
To fill the resulting intellectual vacuum, the Democratic senators organized a furor over legalized abortion. It consisted of two things. First, they asked Thomas almost 100 times to explain, in advance, what his legal and political opinions would be in any upcoming abortion case, when he had a right to decline to answer such questions. The only contribution of the Republicans to the out-of-control Democrat batterings was…to count the questions!
Next, the Democrats put on an array of witnesses who foresaw only legions of butchered women if Thomas were confirmed. On that charge, the Republicans strangled. The effect on Thomas, the advocate of fair, colorblind solutions, was appalling.
He was not only the empty-headed black in an empty suit….He was not only a dumb, shifty, evasive black….He was not only a cringing and groveling black who knew his place….He was not only a good black, a willing pawn in the hands of his conservative white masters….