The Low Road To The High Court


Timothy M. Phelps & Helen Winternitz

Hyperion -- 458 pp -- $24.95

The friends and foes of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas both turned out to be right: Conservatives predicted he would cement their majority, while liberals fretted that he would vote against abortion and limit the rights of minorities. The likelihood that the youthful Thomas would strengthen the court's dominant conservative wing goes a long way toward explaining why his confirmation hearings in the fall of 1991 turned so ugly.

The allegations that, while head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas sexually harassed fellow employee Anita F. Hill made for a spectacular finale. But the weeks-long battle over George Bush's second nomination to the Supreme Court served as a proxy for the continuing struggle for the political soul of America. With Republicans enjoying success in Presidential races and Democrats holding most other elected posts, the court has become the battleground between left and right. Ideological litmus tests are now more important in securing a seat than judicial temperament or ability.

It is this highly charged environment that Washington journalists Timothy M. Phelps of Newsday and freelancer Helen Winternitz explore in their book Capitol Games, a behind-the-scenes look at the Thomas confirmation and the soap opera it turned into after Hill's allegations of sexual harassment were made public.

We get to meet again all the characters of the saga. There are the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Wyoming windbag Alan Simpson, whose folksy ways don't quite disguise a mean streak, and Ted Kennedy, whose own reputation for unsavory behavior with women renders him speechless through most of the hearings. There is Thomas' political godfather, Senator John Danforth, "Saint Jack" to his colleagues, who is only too happy to be a White House pit bull if it gets him the civil-rights bill he ardently supports.

Then there are the handlers, the hangers-on, and the relatives and friends of both Hill and Thomas who have to endure the public spectacle. We have the busloads of supporters from Pin Point, Ga., the hamlet where Thomas was born. On the other side, we have the women members of the House who storm up to the Capitol to vent outrage at the way their Senate colleagues are raking Hill over the coals. And who could forget the televised discussions of genitalia, erotomania, and varieties of raunchy pornography that many Americans probably never knew existed?

It's all good theater--indeed the best that TV could offer last fall. Phelps and Winternitz accurately capture the atmosphere: a boisterous carnival of competing interests clamoring for media attention. What Capitol Games does not adequately do is explain how the confirmation process degenerated into its current form. Nor does it tell us what makes Clarence Thomas tick. And it undertakes no extra legwork in attempting to answer the $64,000 question: Who was telling the truth?

The last point first: The authors clearly suggest that Thomas was lying, and they make a case that Anita Hill had nothing to gain but ridicule by coming forth with her allegations. They also note that the wild claims about her possible hidden motivations--psychological and otherwise--were never supported. As for what makes Thomas tick, the book falters--after doing yeoman work exploring the chameleon-like ability of the former rebel to adopt the ideological flavor of the month. Phelps and Winternitz trace his rise to power in Washington beginning in 1981. As a young Capitol Hill aide, Thomas allied himself with Jay Parker, a black ultraconservative who had worked in the Presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. Parker, who by then was lobbying for the South African government, was a key recruiter of black conservatives for service in the Reagan Administration.

Once aboard as head of the EEOC, Thomas grew into a stalwart supporter of the Reagan revolution and by 1987 was on the lecture circuit, regularly addressing such conservative groups as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. His political trench work was rewarded in 1989, when President Bush picked him for a seat on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

But the authors leave it to future books to explore in detail the contradictions inherent in Thomas--a black man living in a white man's world, a man whose career appears to be devoted to defying stereotypes of his race. To what extent Thomas was a victim of the process, forced to submit to the handling provided by the White House, remains unclear.

That question, of course, bears on Thomas' character in light of such actions as his preposterous statement that he had never discussed or debated Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion. Rather than answer questions truthfully, Thomas--as would perhaps any candidate determined to win confirmation--dissembled and evaded, so as not to offend the interest groups that could quash the nomination.

The real power of the book comes from reading about all the small-mindedness and petty deceit inherent in the confirmation process. This, in the end, is the most offensive aspect of the sordid affair. It grates against our teachings: that the high court is too sacred, too important an institution to be desecrated by politicians and special interests.

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