Conservatives certainly remember the awful treatment Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas faced at his 1991 confirmation hearings, including the endless media coverage granted to utterly unproved charges of sexual harassment by a former employee, Anita Hill. At the time, Thomas referred to the televised hearings as a “high tech lynching” perpetrated by those who would torpedo the conservative jurist’s nomination.
But from the very moment President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas to the Court on July 1, 1991 — exactly 32 years ago today — journalists employed nasty and often racist language to denigrate Thomas as unfit to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose retirement had created the vacancy that needed to be filled.
The departing liberal was given hero status by the media, even as they mourned the coming conservative ascendancy. “Justice Marshall, the sturdy old champion of individual rights, has grown increasingly lonely as a member of the dwindling liberal minority,” fill-in anchor Charles Kuralt fretted on the June 27, 1991 CBS Evening News, the day Marshall announced he was leaving the Court.
The next morning’s Wall Street Journal — a news article, not an editorial — lauded Marshall as “the fabled torch-bearer for civil rights.” Even the Washington Times acted as if only liberals cared about “individual rights,” as reporter Dawn Ceol asserted: “Justice Marshall’s retirement leaves only Justices Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens to carry the torch for individual rights.”
As much as the media adored Marshall, they detested Thomas. “Clarence Thomas is the best only at his ability to bootlick for Ronald Reagan and George Bush,” Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carl Rowan sneered on the syndicated political chat show Inside Washington on July 7. “If they had put [Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke on, I wouldn’t scream as much because they would look at David Duke and reject him for what he is. If you gave Clarence Thomas a little flour on his face, you’d think you had David Duke talking.”
“If Thomas were white, the very idea of putting him on the Supreme Court would be an affront to the legacy of the justice he is replacing, the legendary Thurgood Marshall,” Newsweek’s Evan Thomas insisted in the magazine’s July 15 issue.
USA Today’s Barbara Reynolds also deplored Thomas, but initially hoped he might evolve once on the Court: “It’s a shame that Thomas and Marshall are even mentioned in the same breath,” she wrote on July 5. “But I still advocate his confirmation. First, if [FDR-appointed Justice] Hugo Black, who once was a member of the KKK, could become a distinguished liberal justice, there is a hope that a Negro can turn black. Maybe Thomas, who would have lifetime employment as a justice, could find his soul.”
Two months later, in advance of Senate confirmation hearings in September, Reynolds had discarded hopefulness as she slammed Thomas on a deeply racist level. “Here’s a man who’s going to decide crucial issues for the country and he has already said no to blacks; he has already said if he can’t paint himself white he’ll think white and marry a white woman,” Reynolds fumed in a guest column for the Washington Post on September 10.
Reynolds wasn’t alone. “This was an entirely cynical nomination to begin with,” Time’s Strobe Talbott argued on Inside Washington September 7. “It was an attempt to basically play the race card by picking somebody who, because of the color of his skin, would not be rejected, even though he stood for a set of views on society and how the justice system would work that are completely against those of the Justice he’s replacing, Thurgood Marshall.”
“Who is this guy, Clarence Thomas, and why should we want him on the Supreme Court? I can’t think of any good reasons. The man is not distinguished and he doesn’t seem to have a heart,” NBC News reporter Bob Herbert blasted in an unusually obnoxious “Viewpoint” segment on the September 8 Today show. “Let’s be straight about this. Clarence Thomas is a tool of the rich and powerful....Make no mistake, old people, poor people, black people, women, forget about it. Clarence Thomas is not your friend.”
Given the media mindset of the moment, it was no surprise news organizations leaped to elevate Anita Hill’s harassment allegations, which appeared only after the confirmation hearings had officially ended and Thomas’s nomination had been sent to the Senate floor for what seemed like certain approval. Joe Biden’s Judiciary Committee quickly scheduled new hearings — a last gasp for liberals to try and torpedo the nomination.
That October’s media coverage reflected the same venomous attitude that marked the initial weeks after Thomas’s nomination. The Washington Post’s Donna Britt penned an October 15 “Style” section essay in which she “hated” the “warp speed with which bootstrapper extraordinaire Clarence Thomas adopts the pose of black victim whenever it suits him. If anyone had told me that a black man defended by President Bush, Sens. Strom Thurmond and Orrin Hatch, his loyal white wife and statesmanlike white sponsor would cry ‘Racism!’ after an accusation by a black woman, I’d have busted a gut.”
Thirty-two years later, liberal journalists still have Thomas in their cross-hairs. The most recent effort, by the left-wing ProPublica (a site funded by George Soros as well as a couple of undisclosed millionaires), selectively singled out Thomas for failing to disclose a gift from someone with no business before his court — something liberal Justices have done as well, without the hyperbolic wall-to-wall cable news coverage.
It all goes back to the day the first President Bush nominated Thomas for the Supreme Court nearly a third of a century ago. In July 1991, media liberals were furious that a conservative would replace a liberal Justice that they celebrated for his activism. And they’re still mad about it.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.