Selling the 'Founding Principles” Like a Used Car

The government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and major social transformations to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the freedoms and individual rights we hold as fundamental today.
– Thurgood Marshall on the bi-centennial of the Constitution, 1987

On Saturday, October 9th at 7:31 in the morning, Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, picked up her phone and dialed Anita Hill’s Brandeis University office phone and left a taped message asking Professor Hill to pray and, then, apologize and explain “why you did what you did with my husband.”

Mrs. Thomas later described her call as an “olive branch.” Hill saw it differently and called the campus police and the FBI.

The phone call led to a front-page story in The New York Times and stories in other papers and on the web. It raised many questions as to why Mrs. Thomas did what she did. It also resurrected the sordid controversy of her husband’s appointment to the US Supreme Court.

Virginia and Clarence ThomasVirginia and Clarence Thomas

Anita Hill has suggested that Mrs. Thomas felt Hill was secretly in love with her husband and, thus, that she had fabricated her testimony about sexual harassment, pornographic movie references and pubic-hairs-in-Coke-can jokes all out of pique and jealousy. Hill’s response to this notion is basically: you gotta be kidding.

The phone call story brings back images like the high stacks of Playboy and Penthouse magazines one witness said were piled up in Mr. Thomas’ bachelor apartment.

As to the plausibility of Anita Hill’s testimony, the phone call story brought out Lillian McEwen, a retired administrative law judge who had dated Clarence Thomas in the 1980s. She told The Washington Post this:

“The Clarence I know was certainly capable of not only doing the things that Anita Hill said he did, but it would be totally consistent with the way he lived his personal life then.”

As for Mrs. Thomas’ tendency to defend her husband, the Post also reports that back in 1999 “a distraught woman” called one of their reporters commenting on a story about a man falsely accused of indecent exposure. The woman said her husband had suffered the same kind of ordeal. “My husband’s name is Clarence Thomas,” she said.

Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was an aide to Clarence Thomas when Thomas was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. About the 1991 Senate hearings, he told the Post Mrs. Thomas was ”still affected by it. I just pray and hope she can find peace with this situation.”

At the far end of the continuum

A recent New York Times graphic continuum of Supreme Court justices based on their voting records put Thomas on the absolute right end of the historic continuum.

His one “liberal” weakness is free speech, especially in the area of sex. In one case, he was sympathetic to the rights of a man who had been entrapped into soliciting underage pornography. He has ridiculed the Texas anti-sodomy law. Most of the time he is known for remaining silent and not asking questions during hearings and for being a tough supporter of executive power.

Given that her husband is such a lightning rod for sordid controversy, it does seem strange that Mrs. Thomas would so willfully risk re-opening the 19-year-old wounds. Did she really think Hill would pray and call to apologize?

Like her husband, she is clearly not stupid, which makes one see method in her madness. The interesting question is, did she leave a recording on Professor Hill’s voicemail as a means of raising political heat on the right by bringing up her husband’s martyrdom?

On the left, the Thomas appointment is seen more as a crime or a slap-in-the-face to a movement. But on the righteous and cocky right, it’s different, and martyrdom is always a good way to whip up the forces of liberty. Thomas himself called his hearing “a high-tech lynching.”

Earlier this year, Mrs. Thomas founded a well-designed and very well-funded website called Liberty Central that exists to “preserve freedom and reaffirm the core founding principles” of America. In speeches, she has made it clear the November midterm elections are in Liberty Central’s sights and she can see blood in the water.

A leader of the Dallas Tea Party summed up Liberty Central this way: “It is a place where you can get a civics class and learn about the nuts and bolts of liberty.”

At a Dallas Tea Party gathering in September, Mrs. Thomas was introduced to the group by the enthusiastic emcee this way: “Her husband happens to be one of the finest justices in the history of the Supreme Court.”

Wearing a rubber Statue Of Liberty hat, she recognized her husband by saying, “I do policy. He does law.” Then, she told the enthusiastic gathering, “From the frontlines, I’m telling you, we need your help. We’re at risk of losing the country. We have 61 days to put the brakes on this train headed for a cliff.”

Asking whether Mrs. Thomas’ political activity is illegal is not a pertinent question, since the current Supreme Court on which her husband sits makes it clear that questions of Legal and Illegal tend to be trumped by the realities of Power and Wealth. Who has it and wants to hold onto it? And who doesn’t have it?

The fact is, when the wife of arguably the most enigmatic, right-leaning justice ever on the United States Supreme Court starts a secretly-funded organization to “take back America” from a Democratic regime in the White House, to paraphrase Hamlet, something stinks on the Potomac.

Sean Wilentz has a very troubling article in The New Yorker linking Glenn Beck and the Tea Party Movement with some of the worst and most far-right nutcases going back to the John Birch Society, and to ideas and activities which even William Buckley disdained. All that craziness is being resurrected and manipulated.

It gets even more interesting if you cross-reference the Wilentz article on rightist, Tea Party ideology with an August 30 New Yorker profile by Jane Mayer on Charles and David Koch, two highly secretive oil multi-billionaires who have pumped, and are pumping, multi-millions of dollars into the far-right Tea Party Movement in America.

With so much money in play, one begins to see that the so-called “grassroots” Tea Party Movement is, in fact, very much a top-down, rightist movement. This explains how and why the movement has gotten such legs so quickly. Using gobs of money strategically placed, people like the Koch brothers have been able to incite and focus the inchoate, often apolitical frustration and rage growing across America and direct it into right-wing channels.

It’s no surprise that Liberty Central has Koch connections. Sarah Field, Liberty Central chief operating officer and general counsel, the number-two figure directly under CEO “Ginni” Thomas, previously worked for the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. According to the Liberty Central website, her work with the Koch Foundation “centered on legal reform, with a focus on criminal and civil justice issues.”

One can almost guarantee that prominently among Liberty Central’s generous and anonymous donors sit the Koch Brothers.

Wilentz ends his sobering article with this:

“It appears that the extreme right wing is on the verge of securing a degree of power over Congress and the Republican Party that is unprecedented in modern American history. For defenders of national cohesion and tempered adversity in our politics, it is an alarming state of affairs.”

In this context, it’s reasonable to assume that Ginni Thomas’ phone call was made from a posture of new-found confidence, whether it was made in a spirit of vengeance or whether it was made to whip up insurgent Tea Party sentiment. Or both.

No matter what, the legacy that will tragically follow Clarence Thomas to his grave – and the reason his confirmation hearing was so ugly – is the incredible betrayal his appointment seems represent of the historic struggle for racial justice and civil rights in America.

Justice Thomas would likely call me “sanctimonious,” as in the 1989 quote he made about “how easy it had become for sanctimonious whites to accuse a black man of not caring about civil rights.” And a reading of his history being raised in poverty in cracker Georgia makes it clear his is not a simple tale, but a tale of overcoming and of great personal determination.

At the other end of the continuum

The Times’ Supreme Court justice political continuum that put Thomas on the far right put the man he replaced, Thurgood Marshall, at the farthest left position.

The difference between Clarence Thomas and Thurgood Marshall is the difference between “liberty” and “liberation.” The former is about advancing me and a world of profit and loss; while the latter is plural and about freeing people living under a yoke of oppression.

And as Marshall had the courage to say in 1987, the fine “founding principles” that Clarence and Ginni Thomas so like to tout are a fiction. “The government [the founding fathers] devised was defective from the start,” Marshall said.

Thurgood Marshall in 1967, the year he was appointed to the courtThurgood Marshall in 1967, the year he was appointed to the court

Most glaringly, the “founding principles” Ginni Thomas so loves to flaunt in Liberty Central willfully overlooked the enslavement and future Jim Crow brutalization of her husband’s ancestors. That defect is the unrecognized elephant in the room when it comes to Clarence Thomas’ views and Ginni Thomas’ talk of “liberty.”

It was the bloody and painful struggle for “liberation” that Thurgood Marshal fought in the courts and ultimately in the Supreme Court.

The ongoing insult will always be the conservative Clarence Thomas’ much stated opposition to affirmative action, when he is one of the most high-profile examples of affirmative action in the nation’s history.

The “crime” of Thomas’ supplanting of Marshall has nothing to do with filling a “black seat” on the court. If it was a designated “seat” to be filled at all, it was a seat for a fighter, a liberator of poor and powerless people, which Marshall was. In that sense, it was a seat that had ultimately more to do with class than with race.

That seat was stolen, and Thomas sits in it today for one reason and one reason alone, the color of his skin. If that’s a case for martyrdom, it was Thurgood Marshall’s legacy that was martyred.

And that legacy is now being trampled on by the likes of Ginni Thomas’ Liberty Central.