Clarence Thomas in His Own Words

This interview is adapted from Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, edited by Michael Pack and Mark Paoletta. (Regnery, 256 pages, $29.99).

The Hearings Begin

“Ultimately, the biggest impediment was the modern-day liberal.”

Michael Pack: After all these months of prep, it’s September 10, 1991, the first day of the hearings on your nomination to the Supreme Court, and you go to Senator John Danforth’s office before the hearing starts.

Clarence Thomas: The whole process was awful. I went to Kennebunkport and was announced on July 1, and now we’re in September. And virtually every minute of every day, between July 1 and September 10 had been full of torment and exhausting work. I get to Senator Danforth’s office, and he’s been a warrior and just fabulous. I could not imagine having had a better boss and a better person to meet in my life, particularly at that age, as a young man. He’s a good man. I get to his office, and we sit, and we begin to discuss what’s ahead. And he’s just more comforting than anything else, and just before the hearings start, he had a very small private bathroom there. He said to Virginia [Thomas], “You’re going to think I’m really odd,” but he invited us in his little bathroom and he had a portable tape recorder cassette player, and he played “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and we listened to that, and he exhorted me to let the Holy Ghost speak through me, and we went off to the hearings.

MP: He was a minister, in fact?

CT: He’s an ordained Episcopal minister. And it’s interesting because I saw him being more priestly during the confirmation than I had witnessed during the entire time I knew him. He kept that separate from the day-to-day work when I worked for him. We knew he was an Episcopal minister. He didn’t wear a collar, and he didn’t talk about it constantly, and he didn’t proselytize. Piety was a private matter. So now I saw all sides of him, not just the senator, or the attorney general, but the man. And it was wonderful to behold. And certainly, he was wonderful to me.

MP: There were the opening statements from the senators and your opening statement and then the questioning begins. It was really relentless, day after day. It must have been grueling. Even though you have been through congressional hearings before, this must have been extraordinary.

CT: I’ve had worse things in life. I’ve been blessed because I’ve seen worse. It was a lot worse to be hungry and not know when you got to eat, or be cold and not know when you’re going to be warm again. These people who were doing the attacking had never known anything like that. They think that this is the worst that could ever happen. It was horrible, in every way, and I was worn down. I was exhausted. I was tired.

I felt as though in my life I had been looking at the wrong people who would be problematic toward me. We were told that, “Oh it’s gonna be the bigot in the pickup truck. It’s gonna be the Klansman. It’s going to be the rural sheriff.” And I’m not saying that there weren’t some of those who were bad, but it turned out that through all of that, that ultimately, the biggest impediment was the modern day liberal. They were the ones who would discount all those things because they have one issue, or because they have the authority, the power to caricature you.

MP: Does this reflect your grandfather’s distinction between rattlesnakes and water moccasins?

CT: I think he was right there. The moccasin doesn’t give you a warning, and it strikes. A rattlesnake at least tells you. And I would really equate the outright bigot with a rattlesnake. You know they don’t like you. Whereas the people who say, “Oh, we like you a lot,” and then do you harm are more like water moccasins. There was a wonderful song by The Undisputed Truth, back in the ’70s, called “Smiling Faces” and that basically makes that point. “They smile in your face,” and then they stab you. So that was it. I beat up on myself for not realizing that more clearly.

MP: “Smiling Faces” begins with: “Smiling faces pretend to be your friend. Smiling faces shedding traces of the evil that lurks within.” 

CT: Oh yeah, that’s a great song. Look it up on YouTube. That became sort of a mantra, or at least a reference point, and that’s what I was thinking sometimes during the hearings—the smiling faces, the people who say they like you and do you harm.

Joseph Biden, Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, September 10, 1991. Arnie Sachs / CNP

Senator Biden

“I had no idea what he was talking about.”

MP: How did Senator Biden treat you during the hearings?

CT: When I got nominated to the D.C. Circuit, Joe Biden told me I would be confirmed—he was chairman of the committee—but that if I was nominated to the Supreme Court, basically all bets were off, that I would be treated differently.

MP: Didn’t Biden promise to start the hearings with a softball question?

CT: Joe Biden promised a lot of things and said a lot of things. Before the beginning of the hearings, he took us to the hearing room, which was the Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building. And he showed us around, and he explained that there would be a round of opening statements that would take some time, and then he would ask the first question, that it would be a softball question, and then he would just get me warmed up because it would be very difficult for me to get used to that setting.

I don’t recall exactly what the question was, but it had to do with the speech that I gave at the Pacific Legal Foundation. And he misquoted it. I was perplexed because I didn’t remember the speech. I’ve given lots of speeches, but it didn’t sound right. It was not what I believed. And it seemed it was the opposite. You’re flustered a little bit, because you’re waiting for the softball, and it turns out to be a beanball.

MP: Senator Biden claimed you were praising Professor Stephen Macedo’s views on property rights and that the Supreme Court should be activist in reasserting property rights.

CT: I said that even if I agreed with Macedo you couldn’t do that because either the law or the Constitution would actually be the determining factor; that the court shouldn’t be activist. In the next sentence I disagreed with Macedo’s point of view.

MP: They did that a few times, taking your statement out of context. Eventually, it gets corrected, but they must feel they have gotten somewhere just by putting it on the table in a distorted manner. 

CT: This is not an information exchange. People can say things. There could be insults, there can be slights, there can be innuendos. There could be an effort to unnerve you, to rattle you, to get you to look bad. So there are all these other things that are going on. There’s a lot of this “gotcha,” to get you to say something that leads to something else.

My view when I was at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is to just say what you think and to be consistent. And if people lay these traps, then so be it. But at least you have the comfort of knowing that what you said is what you believe. And if they have a problem with it, I think it’s up to them to say explicitly and forthrightly what that problem is.

MP: Senator Biden was very focused on natural law.

From the documentary “Created Equal”:

Senator Biden: Finding out what you mean when you say that you would apply the natural law philosophy to the Constitution is, in my view, the single most important task of this committee . . . I just want to make sure we all know what we are talking about here. That you and I know, at least, what we are talking about here.

There is a fervent . . . and aggressive school of thought that wishes to see natural law further inform the Constitution than it does now. Argued against by the positivists, led by Judge Bork. Now again, that may be lost on all the people, you know and I know what we are talking about . . . Someone may apply it in a way, like Moore, who leads him in a direction that is, quote, “liberal.” You may apply it in a way that leads you in a direction that is conservative, or you may, like many argue, not apply it at all.

But it is a fundamental question that is going to be almost impossible for non-lawyers to grasp in an exchange, but you know and I know it is a big, big deal.

MP: How did you respond?

CT: Who knows. I have no idea what he was talking about.

MP: He was suggesting that natural law theory was an open sesame for you to just use natural law arguments to impose your opinions on issues like abortion.

CT: I have to be perfectly honest with you: You sit there, and you have no idea what they are talking about. People may in the end, after the fact, figure out what he was talking about at the time. I have no clue. All I know is that he was asking me these questions about natural law. I had looked at natural law. One, I was really interested in the founding, and you can’t deny that natural law was an important part of that. The framers understood natural law and natural rights a certain way, and it is the underpinning of our Declaration, which then becomes the basis for the foundation for the Constitution.

The distinction that we made was the Constitution is the positive document. The Declaration may set out the architecture for it, the reasons for it, but here’s the Constitution. The positivists say, “Ignore that and use this.” But the Declaration informs the Constitution. It shines a light on the Constitution. It reaffirms why you have these things.

MP: Yes, Senator Biden seemed a bit confused about it all himself.

CT: One of the things you do in hearings is you have to sit there and look attentively at people you know have no idea what they’re talking about. And it was fine. I understood what he was trying to do. I didn’t really appreciate it, but I had no idea what he was talking about minute by minute. And I couldn’t get caught up in that sort of confusion.

I think what Bob Bork’s mistake was, he’d try to sort it out and make sense of it. My granddaddy had another saying; he said, “Boy, it don’t make no damn sense, because it don’t make no damn sense.” And I’m not going to sit here and make sense out of something that doesn’t make sense. So if he doesn’t understand it, then I am not going to try to understand it. I know why I did what I did. Here’s why I’m trying to do this: I had my reasons. I know what Ken [Masugi] and John [Marini] and I were working on. I know what I was thinking about. I know what I think. Now what he thinks I think is used to confuse me about what I actually think.

MP: I thought Senator Orrin Hatch had a good point about this in the hearings. He said that Bob Bork was attacked for not believing in natural law, and now the same people are attacking you for believing in natural law.

CT: Well, he was attacked for being a positivist. Just remember what the rule is: if people are for you, you can do no wrong. If they’re against you, you can do no right. That logic has nothing to do with it. Consistency isn’t an order of the day. It’s not a coin of the realm. You don’t like this guy, here’s what you can use against him, and whether or not it’s logical or consistent has nothing to do with it.

MP: Another focus in the hearings was your views on affirmative action. What were the senators after on this issue?

CT: I have no idea what they were after.

MP: They wanted to imply that you were not—

CT: There is a view in society that blacks should think certain things. Years ago, all blacks had to believe in busing. All blacks have to believe in welfare. All blacks have to believe in quotas. All blacks have to believe—these were like tenets of being black, and they were assigned to you.

I was recently in D.C. going to lunch, and a young black meter-maid came up to me and said, “I’ve always been wanting to meet you.” She was so excited, and she said, “You know the only thing I don’t agree with you on is ‘affirmative action.’” And I said, “What is it?” And she paused, and she said, “I don’t even know what it is, and here I am saying I don’t agree with you.” And she went off muttering to herself, “I’m disagreeing with this man, and I don’t even know what it is.”

It becomes what people want it to be, from equal opportunity to quotas. Think of it as a weapon, a bludgeon: “Here’s what blacks believe. He doesn’t believe it: Therefore!” I mean, that may sound syllogistic, but that’s just that. You assign it: “Here’s what blacks believe. He doesn’t believe it.”

MP: They were focused on the “goals and timetables” issue, and whether they violated the Constitution.

CT: Yeah, that’s a real hot button issue today. It’s the same thing with these new sort of issues du jour that you’re supposed to believe, if you’re black. And if you don’t, it’s the same thing today. To be fashionable, there is an issue du jour. “We all agree with that, of course.” And then tomorrow it’s something else. I’m like my grandfather in that regard—principles have a much longer shelf life than these issues du jour.


“Your life didn’t matter. What mattered was what they wanted, and what they wanted was this particular issue.”

MP: The big driver for the Democrats opposing you was Roe v. Wade. They asked lots about that, and in many ways.

CT: I think it was central to a lot. It was certainly the key to the opposition from many of the women’s groups. I just thought it was ironic that in my whole life, through all the years of preparation, and coming through Georgia, and all the challenges, that of all the things that they’ve reduced it to was something that wasn’t even an issue in your life. Wasn’t a matter you’ve thought about, but because that issue is so important to them, they will wash over your entire life. They will vandalize the little life that you’ve cobbled together because their stuff is so important.

What I realized, and should have realized more fully, is that you really didn’t matter and your life didn’t matter. What mattered was what they wanted, and what they wanted was this particular issue. And regardless of what I had done with my life, where I had been, where I had lived, it was all canceled out, unless I agreed two plus two equals five. You have to say it. And that makes it true. Because they want it to be true.

MP: The Democrats spent a lot of time trying to get you to commit on how you would rule on abortion, and you did not want to commit. 

CT: One, I didn’t know. And two, I had just read all those cases again. I hadn’t read those cases about privacy, and I hadn’t thought much about substantive due process since law school. I had constitutional law in 1972; Roe was decided in 1973. I was more interested in the race issues. I was more interested in getting out of law school. I was more interested in passing the bar exam. My life was consumed by survival. I couldn’t pay my rent. I couldn’t repay my student loans. I had all these other things going on, that you were navigating, these worlds you’re navigating. They think we all should have been concerned about this one issue. I hadn’t really thought about it. I thought about it generally but not in the sense that I had read Roe or re-read Griswold. This wasn’t my issue. I have no idea why they thought it should be my issue, why I should think about it in the way they did.

MP: They refused to believe that you had not discussed it.

CT: Well, you know what? They refused to believe a lot of things. Isn’t that fascinating? I had to have discussed it because they wanted me to discuss it. It goes back to their thinking on affirmative action. You have to believe in affirmative action because we think you ought to believe in affirmative action. Well, how is it different from slavery? How is that different from segregation? How is that different from being told, “You can’t walk across that park”? “Oh, you can’t think those thoughts.” “Oh, you could not have done that.” “You could not have used your time that way.” How is that any different? You know what? I’d prefer to be excluded from the park because I can live my life quite freely without having set foot in a park. But you can’t live it freely without having your own thoughts. The idea that, “I have to do this,” I found that more repulsive than the specific thing about which they thought I should think.

MP: Now, they might not have liked your views about affirmative action, but they knew them. In the Roe case, they thought they knew what you thought, even though you hadn’t said it.

CT: They must have been in séances, or something, or are into reading chicken feet or something like that, because I had not discussed it. How would they know when my wife didn’t know? How would they know when I didn’t know? If I asked them a question: “What is your view on the new advances in quantum physics?” And you say, “I don’t know.” I could say, “I refuse to believe you don’t know, I refuse to believe you hadn’t thought about it because that’s all I’ve been thinking about for the past five years.” I make light of it, but the point is, not everybody thinks about what you think about. Not everybody reads the same books. I read the things I’m interested in. I’m interested in diesel motors and the difference between an 8v92 and a Series 60 Detroit Diesel. How many people are interested in that? Maybe two? That’s all I’m interested in, and you too should be interested in this. That’s absurd.

The abortion issue is a much bigger issue, obviously, but the point is, I hadn’t thought about it. I thought about it in the sense that maybe it would be hard—but constitutionally, ever read the cases? No. I was more in the race issues. I was more interested in black kids getting an education. I was more interested in the breakdown of the family. I was more interested in the social pathologies that were coming the way of blacks. Look at what I read, look at what I was interested in. Did Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison or Harper Lee have some long exposition or long discussion on abortion? No, that isn’t what we were talking about. You’re talking about race because that was a central part of our lives.

MP: They didn’t want Roe to be overturned. And that was, as you say, the one thing that trumped everything else.

CT: Well, perhaps they wanted assurances, which is precisely what a judge shouldn’t be doing.

MP: And one of the themes of the confirmation was how should judges decide, and what would your role be as a judge.

CT: I don’t think they believe that a judge is to be impartial. I think they believe in legal realism. I think some people don’t believe that law is to be neutral. They think that you bring a bias, and it’s reflected in the way you judge.

MP: They didn’t believe perhaps that you could judge impartially without simply going with your bias.

CT: Maybe that’s because that’s what they would do. There’s a lot of projection here. They project their views on you, they project their attitudes, their outlook, the way they would do things on you. Well, that’s not me. I’ve heard them say to me, “Well, if that happened to me, this is what I would have done.” So that’s what you would have done. Or they say, “Oh everybody does it.” So you spread a certain approach or you make it universal.

MP: Right after the hearings, were there also written questions you had to respond to?

CT: We actually spent a lot of time responding to written questions. And it never ended because you had more people challenging what you said. Then the propaganda starts that, “Oh, you lied.” They love to call you a liar. That’s the first thing they love to say, “Well, you say you didn’t discuss Roe. Everybody discussed Roe. You’re lying.” So then the propaganda starts on that. Then they continued raising more questions, asking more questions. And then you had all the people who were testifying against you. I love people who show up and testify against you, whom you’ve never met. When you’re nominated, you have people who show up that you barely know, who become experts on you, and these people testify against you, you don’t know them from a hill of beans. And people say all sorts of things. You become this piñata, and you start attracting everybody who wants attention. 

Anita Hill is sworn-in at the Senate Judiciary hearing, October 11, 1991. Getty Images.

Anita Hill

“That’s when all heck broke loose.”

MP: What did you do next?

CT: We were just exhausted. We went over just briefly, and it was out of season, to Cape May just to get away from the Washington area. We came back and that’s when all heck broke loose. We had just gotten back, and I got a call from Lee Liberman, and she said, “The FBI is coming out.” She said it’s something silly, she was laughing, and she said, “I’ve read it, it is just some illiterate statement with a lot of misspellings and typos, and it’s not even an affidavit. It won’t take much time, but we need the FBI to come out. It’s best that I not tell you what it is because it’ll just sort of taint things, but it’s not a big deal.” So the FBI comes out.

MP: What was that like when the FBI came to visit you?

CT: It was a black gentleman and a white female agent, and they show their identifications. And as soon as they stepped in, they said, “Do you know Anita Hill?” I said, “What?” And then they said, “Did you ever try to go out with her or did you ever discuss pornographic stuff with her?” “No, no way.” And I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” It’s just like, you’re deflated. You said, “This is where we’re going now.” And we sat down at the kitchen table in the little dining area, and the agent started reading the statement because he said, “We just got this.” And he started asking me about it. And he said, “This is odd because there are no facts in here.” And then he said, “When did you first meet her?”

And, so I maybe, I felt more like Josef K. in The Trial, that suddenly you’re minding your business, and you were arrested one morning. You’re entering an unknown world. I have no facts, I have no idea what I was supposed to have done.

MP: And what did they say the next step for you would be?

CT: They said that agents were fanning out all over the country and investigating it. The committee wanted a report that afternoon, and they would get back to me in the afternoon and tell me what they were finding. In the meantime, a buddy of mine came in, a very dear friend, he said he’d been a lawyer in this area, and he just happened to come in because they were attacking me so much. And he looked at it, and I told him what had just happened. He said, “Oh, this will go away. This doesn’t amount to anything.” And I said, “No, you don’t understand, these guys do nothing that is frivolous. They’ve got more planned.”

MP: Did the FBI get back to you that afternoon?

CT: The FBI called back that afternoon. They said, “This is uncorroborated. And what we’re going to tell the committee is that it’s uncorroborated. There are no facts. We don’t think there’s anything to it.” He was very clear. He was almost apologetic that they had put me through this.

I ran into one of those agents about a year or two later, just happened to bump into him. And he basically said that he didn’t realize how much they were after me. He was a nice man. They were all very nice. The FBI agents, the people who looked into this initially, could not have been more professional, and they were just very straightforward, very dignified about it.

MP: It is amazing that once they couldn’t find corroborating evidence after fanning out through the country—

CT: I said it would never stop. It was never about evidence. It was about: “I have to be stopped,” as one person said.

MP: When the FBI had concluded its investigation, it kind of ended the matter until Anita Hill’s testimony was leaked. How did that happen?

CT: I get another call from Lee Liberman saying that it had been leaked to [NPR reporter] Nina Totenberg and Tim Phelps at Newsday. I knew what the strategy was. I didn’t know how they were going to use it, or what they were going to use. But this is where they were headed. The one thing that throughout your life you’ve tried to avoid is putting yourself in a situation. You read To Kill a Mockingbird. You’ve been watching your whole life, and you try to always be proper, and particularly in sexual areas, and suddenly they can just make these assertions. You know where they’re going, they’ve got to knock me off. It was leaked. This was a crime. This was a criminal act that did this. But in any case, it was leaked, and that changed everything.

Before the committee vote, I get a call from [Senator] Joe Biden, and he said, “Judge, I’ve got two speeches in front of me, one for you, and one against you.” That was kind of hard for me to believe, that he had two. But he said ultimately he was going to vote against me in committee, and I said he had to do what he had to do. But I really wanted to make sure I kept my good name, whether I was confirmed or not. He said, “Judge, don’t worry about it. You’ll keep your good name, nothing will happen to that. I know you don’t believe me, but I’ll be your biggest defender.” 

Well, of course, when it was leaked, he was no place to be found. A lot of people were no place to be found. That really complicated the vote [of the entire Senate] that had been scheduled. The day of the scheduled vote, we knew there was going to be a media circus because of the leak, so Virginia and I went over to Judge Larry Silberman and Ricky Silberman’s house (she’s since passed away) just to get away from that zoo. They didn’t know where we were. I spent the day pacing around their little pool in their little backyard in Georgetown.

MP: It’s never been determined who exactly leaked this to Nina—

CT: They had an investigation [conducted by special counsel Peter Fleming]. I don’t know. I have not expressed great interest in finding out. It didn’t matter to me who leaked it. I just find it incredible that it could ever even get going. And I blame that on people who should know better.

Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The Democrats and the Media Run with It

“It just felt like the mob outside of the jail in To Kill a Mockingbird.”

MP: The media and Democrats certainly jumped on this leak. What was your reaction?

CT: This is the mob. That’s what it felt like. It just felt like the mob outside of the jail in To Kill a Mockingbird. They didn’t have their little robes on, but boy, they were sanctimonious, and they had their torches, which were maybe computers and things. But no, this was the mob; wasn’t any more a trial than Salem had trials.

MP: You mentioned the media circus, and we haven’t talked much about that, but that had been ongoing?

CT: The media was always bad. They just pretend to be objective, but for the most part they were part of the mob from the beginning. But it just got worse. When you have media people calling up friends, and they ask, “Do you have any dirt on this guy?” Not, “What is the story?” Just dirt. That pretty much should tell you all.

It goes back to when I was at the EEOC, that I was “controversial.” I was brand new. How can I be controversial? That means I don’t have the views that they’ve assigned to me. That’s the only controversial thing. So I had then effectively been caricatured. The media was not trying to find out facts, they were clearly a part of one team versus the other. There were a few who weren’t.

MP: The media also went out to Pin Point.

CT: Initially when the media were told I was from Pin Point, they said Pin Point didn’t exist. And that was really funny. These guys know so much. They said, “You’re a liar.” Who would lie about where you’re from? That’s easy to prove, and who would lie about it? Every time you said something, and they didn’t agree with you, you were a liar. One of the reporters went to Savannah and argued with my mother about the number of kids she had. How do you argue with a woman about the number of kids she had? I think she may have been there. She eventually had to tell them to leave.

MP: How could the reporter be arguing about the number of children she had?

CT: He said they can only find records for two kids. How can you be so arrogant to tell a woman how many kids she had? But I think that it is similarly arrogant to tell people what their views ought to be just because of their race. “I know what your views should be. I don’t know you, but since you’re black, your views should be this.”

MP: Yes, I hear this still from your liberal critics. They say you are “a traitor to your race.”

CT: Because you have views that you shouldn’t have. You say what race? The human race? Which race? It is absurd. I love it when you are looking at a white person telling you that, and they just don’t see how laughable that is.

MP: After it’s leaked, then Anita Hill has a press conference. Did you see that?

CT: Oh, God, no.

MP: Did Ginni see it and tell you about it?

CT: She watched and told me it was slickly done, that it was smooth, and there were a lot of professionals there. But what she described was not the person who worked for me. As I recall, [Anita] was portrayed as conservative (not true), that she was quite religious (that’d be the first I’d ever heard of that), and that she was demure (no way). That’s a nice image to paint, but that wasn’t the person I knew. The person I knew was outspoken, could fly off the handle at people, get upset with people, a person who stormed into my office, could be pretty loud about things, and was quite liberal. She may have been religious, but never professed to be, that I knew of.

Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Another Round

“It was hard. I’m at the end of my line.”

MP: Did you hear from Jack Danforth about the next stage for the hearings?

CT: I get a call when I was at Larry Silberman’s house from Jack Danforth, Orrin Hatch, and Bob Dole. And they said that if [the full Senate] voted then, they couldn’t guarantee that I would be confirmed. Remember, we’re dealing with a Democratic Senate, and that they thought we needed to address this matter and it was determined that they would have another hearing.

MP: And how did you feel?

CT: Not good. It was hard. I’m at the end of my line. I don’t know what they are going to do to me next. I still don’t know what I’m accused of doing, so you’re tormenting yourself. Did I say something? Did I make an offhand remark? Did I suggest something? And then you worry about what can they convince people that I have done. You got all these PR firms, and slick law firms, and interest groups. I’m just sitting there, I mean it’s my wife and me. We’re at home, and we have a couple of prayer partners who would come over, and we’d pray and listen to music. The phone kept ringing, and the news kept getting worse. Media was parked outside of our house, so you’re literally under siege. Now you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what they’re going to say next about you. You weren’t worried about what you’ve done. It’s like what can they convince the world that you’ve done, because if they had made it this far with that, then they were going to go the whole way.

MP: After the leak, the media just camped out at your house?

CT: Yeah, they stayed, and then whenever we left, there would be a chase car, and there was a motorcycle behind us. President George H. W. Bush invited us to see him for reassurance. Senator Danforth rode with us to the White House, and we were followed by the press the entire way. It was in every possible way disconcerting and awful. We’d never been through anything like this.

President Bush sat with me in the Oval Office. Virginia went for a walk with Barbara Bush. The president apologized for getting me into this. I told him this wasn’t his fault, that he didn’t do anything to me. It should have been a great moment for a poor kid from the Deep South, and the elites have turned it into a nightmare because of something they want. Not because of something I’ve done, or some crime I’ve committed: because of something they want that they don’t think they’ll get with me. He assured me he was not going to withdraw [my nomination], that he was going to be with me to the end if I could hang in there, and again apologized for getting me into it.

MP: Were there people pushing him the other way, to pull your nomination?

CT: I don’t know. I wasn’t there. You would need to get that from somebody else. I hear that there may have been people who thought he should pull the plug, but I’m not privy to that. I was too busy trying to survive.

MP: How did Virginia respond to this stuff?

CT: I mean, badly. She’s my wife, we’re close. We’d only been married four years at that point, and they had attacked us for being interracial—attacked her. They had attacked everything, until there was nothing left to attack. And this was just the one thing, that as I told her, the one thing that I have to let go: I did feel good after my years at EEOC, that I had this great reputation, and I had a great personal reputation. I didn’t live a profligate life, that sort of thing. So, I felt good about it. I was very prideful of it. And suddenly now, that had to go.

MP: She, of course, didn’t question anything after Anita Hill—

CT: I mean, just that question and the fact people make more of it than it actually was. I know my wife. My wife knows me. Someone flies in and says something, you don’t suddenly doubt the person. And the mere fact that people ask that shows how effective the propaganda campaign is: that you give it more credibility, give it more stature than it deserves. That’s the part that’s incredible to me, that in the context of your life, of all you do, of the way you live your life, suddenly someone throws a speck in, and you say, “Oh, that’s important.”

My wife asked me about Anita Hill. I told her who she was, and why I hired her, same story I’ve been telling anyone who wanted to know. And that was that. And same thing with Senator Danforth, when he came over that day, it was to ask me. And I said, “Jack, here’s the story. Here’s exactly what happened. Gil asked me to hire her.” You’ve desecrated trying to help somebody. You desecrated a person who helped everybody. They have trampled everything, every good intention, every good idea, every good attitude, just to get their way.

MP: The committee then decides it’s going to reconvene to hear testimony.

CT: They were going to reconvene to have a hearing, and Boyden Gray called me up, and asked me did I want to go first or second. He’d suggested I go first, and then told me I have to write a statement. It was really exhausting. I hadn’t slept in a few days, just a little bit, and so I got a quick nap, and drifted off. Then my wife woke me up, and I went downstairs and had some difficulty getting focused. She’d helped clear things away. Then I wrote my statement. She typed it, and we edited it till the wee hours of the morning, and read it to Senator Danforth around 6:30 a.m. He made us take out some polite statements about the committee. He said they didn’t deserve it. Then we tried to lie down for some rest. Of course, I didn’t sleep, and she didn’t either. So we just sort of laid there, like, what is happening to us? Just this nightmare. And then we drove in, and I don’t know what the committee expected, but I read my statement, and basically made it clear I wasn’t going to withdraw. Then, that seemed to be upsetting to them, and they shut the hearings down, and I went back home.

That was it.

MP: What was your state of mind during all that?

CT: Oh, not happy. I was exhausted. You don’t know what’s going on. You’ve been at this for an entire summer. You have basically played, throughout your life, by all the rules, and suddenly people can attack you. It certainly doesn’t comport with anything you’ve ever heard of, except for the things that you were told to fear when you were a kid, and fear not from them, but from groups like the Klan, or from some guy driving a pickup truck in rural Georgia.

By the time I got there, I was pretty angry at the committee, at the process. I really never cared about being confirmed. I was angry that they could do what they did. Contrary to the first time I went to the hearing—you are this little person sitting there and this big important committee kind of looking down on you. And this time, they looked small, diminished, and it was that they diminished themselves, by demeaning themselves. I was not willing to put up with them.

They had pushed me back toward the attitude I had when I was in school: where you give no quarter, and you put aside politeness. What they were doing was just wrong. It was one thing in life not to have what other people had. You can live with that. That was my grandfather, who always said the Tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors’ goods,” so you didn’t resent them, or anything like that. But when people who have so much then attack the little you have, and attack you who have so little, and you’ve not done anything wrong to anyone, then it makes you really unhappy. And I was not willing to put up with it, at that point. And Jack Danforth was on board with that.

MP: So, then you left and went back home, and Ms. Hill testified. Did you watch that?

CT: God, no. If someone said today is the 13th of December, and someone said that you are in Paris at the Eiffel Tower, and they testified that you were, what would it profit you to watch that when you’re sitting here? I just didn’t. I was tired of it. I’d been going through this all summer, with people making you into something you were not. As I said, I was tired of the lies against me.

MP: Did Virginia watch it?

CT: Oh, yeah. She watches everything. I love that woman. If it was about her, I would watch it. If it’s about me, she would watch it. Then she told me what they were saying, and I said, “Well, thank God. I know that didn’t happen.” Because I’d never known. So, yeah, I was tormenting myself, trying to dig through my endless memories: Did I do something? Did I say something? Was it a joke? And when they said whatever it was, I said, “That didn’t happen.” So, it was the first relief I felt.

MP: At that point, you must have been at least thinking a little bit: Why did she do it?

CT: I really don’t get into the psychoanalysis. She did it for whatever reason she did it. People are ambitious, people are self-interested, people are naïve, people can do all sorts of things. I don’t understand it. I don’t have the makeup to do other people harm. That’s not my makeup. I can’t put myself in Jack the Ripper’s place. I can’t put myself in a jewel thief’s place because I don’t have that makeup. I could not say that I’m a victim of somebody doing something to me when nothing happened. I wouldn’t even say it if something did happen. But I don’t understand it. I really don’t. It’s not profitable for me to do that. In my life, this isn’t the big event. This is their big event. I’m more concerned about what my grandfather thought. Those are things that I spend my time on. 

MP: What would your grandfather have thought about what was happening at this point?

CT: That these people created this. He dealt with reality. He could look through the fog of all this and see the reality. Like most people did.

Senator John Danforth speaks with Clarence Thomas and Virginia Thomas, October 11, 1991. Arnie Sachs/Getty Images

Guns Blazing

“This is the wrong black man, he has to be destroyed.”

MP: What happened next?

CT: Senator Danforth called me at home, after that testimony, as I recall, and said that Senator Hatch wants to meet with you, and maybe Senator Dole. I went to his office. They wanted me to testify that night, to not let her testimony fill up the news cycle all evening. So I reluctantly agreed to come back at 8:00. I was tired of it. It wasn’t really worth it to me.

What disappointed me most were the institutions. The institutions are designed never to let the mob get you, and yet in this case the institutions allowed it. My disappointment isn’t with people who have axes to grind. It’s with the sheriff who doesn’t stand up, the senators who didn’t stand up. That was my issue.

So, I get to Senator Danforth’s office and we sit, and we begin to discuss what’s ahead. I was exhausted, and I asked him to get rid of all the people because they were talking about getting confirmed, and I wasn’t interested in that. I was really unhappy with them, with the system, with the Senate, with the people who let this happen. So Jack got rid of everybody. He and Virginia and I stayed. He turned off the lights. He sat there quietly, like a guardian angel. Virginia, always like a guardian angel. And I just laid down on the couch and closed my eyes.

One of the things that came to mind after I’d rested a little bit, I said, “Jack, this is a high-tech lynching,” and he said, “If that’s what you think, say it.” And so, I wrote that on a legal pad, and went and laid down again. At the end of that, he prayed and said, “Let the Holy Ghost speak through you. Just say what you think.” And he just exhorted me to go in the name of the Holy Ghost.

One of the encouraging things is during a lot of these hearings, there’d be these ladies, these wonderful people—I had no idea who they were—they would line the halls, and cheer us on, even in the darkest times. My wife designated them “angels.”

That was it. I went to the hearings and said what I had to say.

MP: Did you write it out ahead of time?

CT: No, no. I had a couple of things written down.

MP: Were there any advisors trying to discourage you from saying what you wanted to say?

CT: Nobody was allowed to talk to me. I was done with it.

MP: So then you gave that remarkable speech, calling the process a “high-tech lynching.” Everyone remembers it. What were you thinking as you were giving the speech?

CT: I wasn’t thinking anything. I was tired of it. I was tired of these people. I was tired. This was a disappointment. Think about it: I mean, if you look at an entire life, you start with nothing, you asked for nothing, you did your best, you played by the rules. You never hurt anybody. You didn’t try to get ahead by harming another person, and this is what they do, because they have issues. And the institutions that you counted on to prevent it, permitted it.

A portion of Judge Thomas’s “high-tech lynching” statement is shown in the documentary “Created Equal.” This is the full statement he made to the committee:

Senator Biden: Do you have anything you’d like to say?

Judge Thomas: Senator, I would like to start by saying unequivocally, uncategorically, that I deny each and every single allegation against me today that suggested in any way that I had conversations of a sexual nature or about pornographic material with Anita Hill, that I ever attempted to date her, that I ever had any personal sexual interest in her, or that I in any way ever harassed her.

A second, and I think more important point. I think that this today is a travesty. I think that it is disgusting. I think that this hearing should never occur in America. This is a case in which this sleaze, this dirt, was searched for by staffers of members of this committee, was then leaked to the media, and this committee and this body validated it and displayed it at prime time over our entire nation. How would any member on this committee, any person in this room, or any person in this country, would like sleaze said about him or her in this fashion? Or this dirt dredged up and this gossip and these lies displayed in this manner? How would any person like it?

The Supreme Court is not worth it. No job is worth it. I am not here for that. I am here for my name, my family, my life, and my integrity. I think something is dreadfully wrong with this country when any person, any person in this free country would be subjected to this.

This is not a closed room. There was an FBI investigation. This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace.

And from my standpoint as a black American, as far as I’m concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S.— U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.

MP: Especially, perhaps the Senate?

CT: Not especially them, the media, all of them, they participated. They became a part of the mob. Thank God for people like Jack Danforth, and Senator Hatch, and Bob Dole and Bennett Johnston, and the people from the South.

MP: When you called it a “high-tech lynching,” what did you mean?

CT: I meant exactly what I said. Instead of using a rope, or burning people, now you burn their reputations in the media. Now you burn it with propaganda. You become the Willi Münzenbergs, the latter-day Willi Münzenberg, or the Goebbels of the world, where you spread propaganda. You destroy people with calumny, with misinformation.

MP: You said in your speech that it was like the lynching of black men for sexual misconduct.

CT: I mean, you pick your reasons. Pick your reasons. We’ve become obsessed today with sexuality and stuff, but there are lots of other reasons why you did it. You broke the rules. You didn’t cross the street. You didn’t get out of the way. You went in the wrong neighborhood. There are lots of reasons things can happen to you. When I broke a lot of rules, and they weren’t the rules they were accusing me of in the end, it was all the other rules. It was not thinking the way I was supposed to, not doing what I was supposed to, not being liberal, not agreeing with the issues they agreed with. But this was the only one that they could finally gin up some momentum. You should just see it for what it is, not in isolation, but as a part of the whole. So yeah, I was the uppity Negro—that’s all it was. I understood that, and that’s what I said.

MP: After that, senators continued to question you.

CT: I haven’t revisited all these things. I did it. I can’t tell you how long it went on. I don’t know how long the hearings, the questioning went on. You’re numb to it by now. It just seemed like everything seemed to be part of this endless, eternal nightmare.

MP: The senators were shocked that you responded so forcefully.

CT: At this point, I had no interest in how they felt. They certainly had no interest in my reputation. I had no interest in it. What they were doing was wrong. If I were a liberal, they would literally fête me, they would be throwing rose petals at my feet. You know it and I know it. We know exactly what’s going on here, and to pretend that it is for some other reason, stop. I mean, do I have “stupid” written on the back of my shirt? I mean, come on, we know what this is all about. This isn’t about what they say it’s about, so people should just tell the truth. This is the wrong black guy. He has to be destroyed. Just say it. Now, at least we’re honest with each other.

MP: Well, it didn’t work.

CT: But in a sense, it did, because they win the propaganda war.

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About Michael Pack and Mark Paoletta

Michael Pack is President of Manifold Productions, Inc. and the writer, director, and producer of numerous award-winning nationally broadcast documentaries. Pack served as the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media under President Donald Trump, as the President and CEO of the Claremont Institute, and as the Senior Vice President for Television Programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, among other distinguished positions. Mark Paoletta served as general counsel to the Office of Management and Budget under President Trump from 2018 to 2021 and as chief counsel and assistant to Vice President Mike Pence from 2017 to 2018. A veteran lawyer, Paoletta specializes in representing clients in congressional investigations and is noted for his work on the confirmations of Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh.

Photo: Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearing, October 11, 1991. Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images