Still Whining After All These Years

An article in Sunday’s Washington Post with this headline caught my eye: “Justice Thomas Tells Law Grads of Being ‘Crushed’ By Rejection.” The article went on to describe Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s speech to Saturday’s graduating class of the University of Georgia Law School.

The description of Knight Ridder reporter Stephen Henderson took me back to my daughter’s commencement exercises at a Washington, D.C. area law school four years ago, when she graduated first in her class. Much to my chagrin, her class chose Justice Thomas as the commencement speaker. That is neither here nor there-it is a conservative school and the students can chose whom they wish.

Of course, my daughter was obligated to give a speech. After her simple comments, which began with a humble “I’m scared to death to speak in front of all of you,” and ended with the reminder that life does not begin and end with law school or law, that friends and family are what make life worth living, Thomas got up to speak.

It was a somber, self-pitying speech that left many of the thousands of attendees squirming in their seats. Apparently Thomas has only one speech-one that recounts his hard life in Pin Point, Georgia, his “crushing” experience of graduating from Yale Law School (pity the poor man who has to go to Yale) without one offer to work in the law firm of his dreams-a firm in Atlanta or Savannah, Georgia. He refers to this experience as one of his life’s great trials and tribulations.

He has no gratitude for John Danforth who gave him a job in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which then led to his being tapped for the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and then the Federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and then, of course, to a seat on the Supreme Court-what to any lawyer would be the pinnacle of a career, not to mention a lifetime. As I noted in a book review of a recent, unauthorized (though the author is a fawning fan of Thomas) biography, Thomas exulted when it first looked like Bush would not nominate him after all. How odd, that he took his wife to dinner to celebrate his “non-appointment.” Then when he got the word that he would be nominated, he said he was “crushed” by the weight of the “burden.”

To this day, repeatedly in his few public remarks like graduation speeches, Thomas continues to rail against the injustice that would not let a black man work in a black law firm. Or at least he attributes his non-hiring to his being black-who knows? Maybe it was his sour personality that is apparent to Supreme Court watchers.

As a sitting justice, Thomas has exhibited behaviors and attitudes that raise questions about his appropriateness for the position. He rarely participates in oral argument, saying all that he needs to know is in the brief. He has described the Court as a “lonely and cold” place, his life there as “sedentary and isolated.” I wonder what he does to make life at the Court better for himself–or his colleagues.

But this is not a man who would be thinking about how to bring joy to himself or his colleagues. His self-pity knows no limits. And that brings me back to his speech at my daughter’s graduation, which I remembered (and would have rather forgotten) as I read about his University of Georgia speech. What was his advice to students? That life would be hard, that they would be unappreciated, that they may often, like him, wish to just throw in the towel (he is quoted as saying that he sometimes wishes to do so “a hundred times a day”). In his speech at my daughter’s graduation, he referred to her as someone who had sacrificed much (she had, she has two children) to graduate first in her class, but said nothing of the love of that make it possible for her to do so. That was the focus of my daughter’s speech-not the sacrifice, but the love that got her through.

I remember approaching several family members and guests that day and asking them how they felt about Thomas’s speech. One described it as “a cup of cold water,” another a “dirge,” another “somber and depressing.” So what is with Thomas and his propensity to engage in self-pity when he is asked to join in others’ celebrations?

It struck me Sunday as I read the article. Life is all about him. Thomas is the epitome of a selfish man, a narcissist to the core. The man you invite to a party whose presence hangs like a dark cloud over the fun that would be. And maybe narcissism, more than outright meanness, accounts for his brutal coldness and contempt of the poor, the minorities, and the powerless in his opinions. For Thomas’s jurisprudence is consistent in his refusal to uphold any law or remedy that will give someone a chance like he had. He is an enemy of equal opportunity, an enemy of the 14th Amendment, an enemy of women’s rights, and enemy of justice and fairness. He says there is no such thing as cruel and unusual punishment. His lust for the death penalty is reflected in an unseemly bloodthirstiness as he rails against any procedure that will delay a prisoner’s execution.

Thomas got his breaks in life because others-from his grandfather, to the nuns in his Catholic high school, to the administrators at his college and Yale Law School, to John Danforth, to Bush the first-gave him a break. He cannot give thanks or gratitude, he can only resent. Resent that his color, or so he says, kept him from all that he really wanted–a job in a Georgia law firm. Not being able to recognize what others gave to him, he has nothing to give to others-not from the bench, not from a podium.

Justice Thomas could do us all a huge favor by resigning from the Court that he finds such a burden, getting into his RV that he claims to love so much, and turning over his seat on the bench to someone who at least appreciates the privilege of wielding almost unlimited power as a Supreme Court Justice.

Of course, he is not going to pack up and drive his gas-guzzler into the sunset. Unfortunately for us who care for people who have less than we do, who suffer at the hands of a cruel and selfish government, Thomas will continue to wield his hatred from the bench. And we will continue to be less of a country because he and his partners in meanness, Scalia and Rehnquist, interpret the law to benefit the powerful, the wealthy, and the Republicans that put them there.

ELAINE CASSEL is the proud mother of a brilliant daughter who does not think like Clarence Thomas. Cassel practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, teaches law and psychology, and writes Civil Liberties Watch under the auspices of The City Pages. She can be reached at: