60 Minutes Changes Tune on Thomas

Reporter Steve Kroft sounded genuinely surprised after interviewing Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for the September 30 60 Minutes:  “Whether you agree with him or not, he is thoughtful, provocative and unpretentious.  Not at all the person you might expect.”

Given the way 60 Minutes reporters have treated Thomas in the past, Kroft's surprise isn't all that surprising.

October 1 marks the first day of the Supreme Court's new session, and also the release of Justice Thomas's autobiography, My Grandfather's Son.  To promote his book, Thomas granted a rare interview to CBS's 60 Minutes.

Kroft treated his subject with the deference owed any Supreme Court justice, more than can be said for the 60 Minutes resident “curmudgeon,” Andy Rooney.

During Thomas's contentious 1991 Senate confirmation hearings, liberals were desperate to block his appointment for fear he would provide the vote enabling the Court to overturn the so-called constitutional right to abortion.  They attempted to paint Thomas first as unqualified, and later as a sexual harasser.  Rooney chimed right in:

    He's the one black man the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People doesn't want to see advance.  [Rooney asking himself]  Do you think Clarence Thomas is a smart enough man for this job?  Ah, marginal.  Probably is.  The other Supreme Court judges aren't all geniuses either, you know.  He has an averageness about him I like.  He was semi-honest.  He didn't lie, but he was trying not to lose any votes.  He weaseled on abortion.  I mean, what would you have done?  If Clarence Thomas isn't approved by Congress, I'll buy dinner for Orrin Hatch and Teddy Kennedy, just the three of us.

After Thomas was confirmed, Rooney aired a year-in-review piece featuring a video clip of the hearing with the song “Send in the Clowns” playing in the background.

Just months after the hearings, 60 Minutes anchor Ed Bradley conducted an infamous puff piece interview of Anita Hill, the woman who leveled uncorroborated charges of sexual harassment against Thomas.  Bradley began by asserting that Hill had received a great deal of support from women victimized by harassers, and proceeded to lob her a series of softball questions allowing her to speak extensively about the problem of sexual harassment.  Bradley never challenged her to back up her unsubstantiated accusations, effectively declaring, as feminists chanted at the time, “I Believe Anita!”

The tone was different 16 years later during Kroft's interview, when Justice Thomas finally had his chance to speak.  Thomas told Kroft that the “elephant in the room” during his confirmation hearing was abortion.  Not Anita Hill.  Not his race.  It was abortion.

This enlightening exchange comes very near the end of the 60 Minutes piece.

Steve Kroft: Thomas believes the real issue being fought over during his confirmation was all but unspoken.

Clarence Thomas: The issue was abortion. That's the issue today.

Kroft: This whole thing was about abortion?

Thomas: Yes. That was the elephant in the room.

Kroft: In what sense?

Thomas: That is the issue that people, apparently, are so upset about-- that you determine the composition of your Supreme Court and your entire federal judiciary, it seems now.

Kroft: Your opponents were afraid that you might, at some point, rule against or help overturn Roe v. Wade?

Thomas: I have no idea what they thought, but they knew one thing-- they weren't in charge of me, so I wasn't going to do their bidding.

 Kroft: Thomas believes the issue of abortion is not addressed in the Constitution and should be left to the states to decide. If that were to become the majority view on the court, abortion could be outlawed in 40 percent of the country.

To his credit CBS's Kroft did a balanced job in reporting on Thomas's life and legacy.  He did not shy away from airing the boilerplate liberal accusations and misconceptions about Thomas, but gave the justice an opportunity to refute all of them.

The start of the piece gives an idea of the tenor of the 60 Minutes story.

Kroft: Most Americans know very little about the workings of the U.S. Supreme Court or its members. But mention Justice Clarence Thomas, and you are likely to start an argument. He is the court's only African American, and its most conservative member. He is arguably the most influential black man in the country, yet he is reviled by many in his own race for his opposition to government programs intended to help minorities. Most people know very little about him, their opinions shaped by his bitter confirmation battle, in which he was accused of sexually harassing a former employee named Anita Hill. Now, 16 years later, he has written a memoir called My Grandfather's Son, which lays bare a remarkable life and the events that shaped it. Supreme Court justices are private people, who rarely give interviews, and Justice Thomas doesn't think much of the press, but he gave us seven days of his life to talk about all of it.

Thomas: It's fascinating that people... there's so many people now who will make judgments based on what you look like. I'm black, so I'm supposed to think a certain way. I'm supposed to have certain opinions. I don't do that. You don't create a box and put people in and then make a lot of generalizations about them.

Kroft: There's some mis... misconceptions about you.

Thomas: Uh-huh.

Kroft: You agree?

Thomas: I think there are misconceptions about all of us. And you've got to... I mean, there's been an effort over the last 15, 20 years to create this perception of me. And you can't argue that that's been, in large part, successful.

Kroft: He is often dismissed as a man of little accomplishment, an opportunistic black conservative who sold out his race, joined the Republican party, and was ultimately rewarded with an affirmative action appointment to the nation's highest court; a sullen, intellectual lightweight, so insecure that he rarely opens his mouth in oral arguments. The problem with the characterization is that it's unfair and untrue.

Kroft: These conceptions, or misperceptions, you call them, have accumulated because you haven't really addressed them. You haven't talked about them.

Thomas: My job is to write opinions. I decide cases and write opinions. It is not to respond to idiocy and critics who make statements that are unfounded. That doesn't mean that people shouldn't have constructive criticisms, but it should be constructive. Whether or not I'm not black... whether or not I'm black or not, that's just silliness. That is not worth responding to.

Most striking about the interview was the constantly reinforced message of personal responsibility.  Thomas credits his grandfather with instilling in him a sense of hard work and pride.  Thomas told Kroft that when he went to live with his grandfather, “He would say, 'Old Man Can't is dead. I helped bury him.' I can't tell you how many times I've heard that. He felt very, very strongly that nothing was impossible. We wound up believing that we could accomplish anything.”

The 60 Minutes piece was riveting, informative and respectful. While using My Grandfather's Son as a springboard, the piece shined a light on one of the most influential members of American society.

Thomas's book has been widely anticipated. The Washington Post ran excerpts from the book in the September 29 edition.  There is an unflattering essay on the book in the Post's October 1 edition, written by a Thomas critic.   Interviews with Thomas and his wife aired on Good Morning America October 1 and will continue throughout the coming week.    

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor, and Kristen Fyfe is senior writer, at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.