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The Impact Of Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court Nomination


For more on this subject, we're going to turn now to Jill Abramson. She's the former executive editor for The New York Times. She did extensive reporting on the nomination of Clarence Thomas for her book "Strange Justice: The Selling Of Clarence Thomas" that she reported and wrote with journalist Jane Mayer. And Jill Abramson is with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for talking with us.

JILL ABRAMSON: I'm thrilled to be here.

MARTIN: Now, I asked Boyden Gray about what led to Thomas's nomination. What's your take on it?

ABRAMSON: The reality is that conservatives were extremely angry and disappointed with President Bush's first choice for the Supreme Court, David Souter. The Bush White House did what it could to reassure the increasingly right-wing base of the GOP that Souter would be conservative. And it did not turn out that way in his first years on the court.

MARTIN: Clarence Thomas was nominated to replace the seat being vacated by Thurgood Marshall, who was a legendary figure. I mean, he'd argued some of the most consequential cases of the civil rights movement. And I want to read a line from your book where you talk about Thurgood Marshall's thoughts about the person who was going to succeed him. And you said, now his worst fear was that a Republican White House, in a political move designed to disarm its liberal opponents, would replace him with a black nominee who shunned the very civil rights agenda for which Marshall had spent his life fighting. So what I'd want to ask you is, do you think President Bush saw it that way?

ABRAMSON: You know, I'm not sure that the president viewed it exactly that way. Certainly, many of his advisers did. They saw it as a very clever choice because they knew that Democrats and liberals might be loath to oppose a black nominee, even one who opposed many of the landmark cases that Justice Marshall championed.

MARTIN: And, of course - as I think most people know or at least were reminded by the most recent confirmation hearings into Brett Kavanaugh's nomination, where the same thing happened - Thomas, then an appeals court judge, was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, who he'd supervised at two different government agencies. And Anita Hill testified during these televised Senate hearings, which was - I think most people would agree it was a really painful moment for just about everybody involved.

What was President Bush's, you know, response to (unintelligible) attitude about all this. He really - wasn't really heard from during that period because, I mean, the action was all on the Senate side. But in your reporting later, like, what did he - what did you - what were you able to find out about how he felt about all this?

ABRAMSON: You know, Boyden Gray was, you know, at his side. Other lawyers in the counsel's office just refused really to entertain even the possibility that Anita Hill was telling the truth and, in fact, orchestrated a political opposition campaign against her. Whether President Bush knew the details of all of that, I don't know. You know, he had stuck his neck out when he announced the choice of Clarence Thomas in Kennebunkport. He was just supposed to say, he was the best man for the job. And the president said he was the best qualified man for the job, which created a bit of controversy because he had very little judicial experience.

But presidents - we see that now - despite facts that mount up otherwise, they often want to believe what they want to believe. And I think that President Bush was probably sincere in his belief that Anita Hill was lying and that Thomas' categorical denial was the truth.

MARTIN: So, finally, obviously conservatives consider Justice Thomas a reliable conservative vote. And they were very pleased with his presence on the court. Others are very critical. I wanted to ask, if you had sort of taken together both the David Souter appointment and the Clarence Thomas appointment, how would you describe the impact of both of Mr. Bush's Supreme Court appointments on his legacy - on how he should be viewed?

ABRAMSON: Well, the nomination of Justice Souter turned out to be a very good one. He was, you know, a thoughtful jurist. You know, I think that the country can thank him for protecting the rights of women and minorities and even, in some cases, criminal defendants. And, you know, the nomination of Clarence Thomas will continue to be a subject of acrimony and argument, I think, for the rest of our lives.

MARTIN: That was Jill Abramson. She's the former executive editor for The New York Times, and she co-authored of the book "Strange Justice: The Selling Of Clarence Thomas."

Jill, thank you so much for talking with us.

ABRAMSON: Thanks so much for asking me on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.