A Travesty of Justice

Putting Clarence Thomas into great novelists' hands


in Ideas


Given the headlines, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the injudicious behavior of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. I know the man unusually well. In 2012, the editors of The Wall Street Journal’s law blog asked me to weigh in on the question of whether the Supremes would uphold or invalidate Obamacare. The law can be shapeshifting in anyone’s hands. What doesn’t change very much though, if at all, is human nature. So . . . as something of an expert in analyzing facial expressions to understand people’s emotions and characteristic patterns over time, might I have an opinion about how the Court would vote? 

Yes, I did. After viewing video of various speeches the Justices had delivered within the past few years, I correctly predicted that the Court would uphold Obamacare. In that case, my verdict came down to one man: Chief Justice John Roberts. Alone among the five conservatives then on the Court, Roberts was, I found, a pretty upbeat, genial person and hence, I reasoned, someone temperamentally inclined to seek a middle-of-the-road consensus when feasible.  

In other words, I saw Roberts as likely to break ranks with his fellow conservatives and side with the President because he had already broken with his conservative colleagues, emotionally speaking. No such mold-breaking move was likely for Thomas, however. There the guy sat on my charted results in negative emotional territory — not as grumpy as disgust-filled Samuel Alito, but having the distinction of being the Court’s second greatest sad sack (after Antonin Scalia). 

That’s rear-view mirror stuff. What about now? Add Anita Hill’s explosive allegations during Thomas’s nomination battle to the latest news about the Associate Justice’s Republican billionaire-funded luxury vacations, gifts, and real-estate deals, and clearly, I’m not the man for the job. Such rich material demands more than a legal-cum-psychology portrait of Thomas.  It’s time to call in the heavy hitters: some of America’s greatest novelists. 

But whom? For which novelists might Thomas fit best in their wheelhouse? Clearly, Ralph Ellison wasn’t in consideration since his most famous novel is Invisible Man and Thomas is way too famous to qualify. Likewise, I couldn’t give the nod to Ernest Hemingway because Thomas is way too pugnacious to enlist the author of A Farewell to Arms for the job. Other novelists’ most acclaimed works could be viewed as too-on-point to invoke them, i.e., John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (given Thomas’s gruff, sour temperament); John Dos Passos’s The Big Money or John Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich (given Thomas’s unearned bounty); as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness (given Thomas’s scandalous foibles). Why, I even thought about the cheap knock-off of employing F. Scott Fitzgerald for the task but retitling Tender Is the Night as Tender Is My Ego in Thomas’s case would be a disservice to the man who also gave us The Great Gatsby

No, there’s nothing great about Thomas, I concluded, as I settled on my final four choices. 

The Rags-to-Riches Literary Merchant 

The obvious choice for the task of portraying Thomas would, on first blush, appear to be none other than Horatio Alger, Jr. After all, the guy wrote about impoverished boys who rose from humble backgrounds to achieve the good life, a career arc that captures at least the outline of Thomas’s own life well enough. Moreover, a lot of Thomas’s recently surfaced improprieties involve the Horatio Alger Association: a network of over-achievers who theoretically now aim, in turn, to help other poor folks achieve success. Why, some of the Association’s members are the very same people who have sprinkled eye-popping largesse in Thomas’s lap.  

From the likes of wealthy donors like Harlan Crow, David Sokol, and Paul Singer, we’re talking about a list including but not limited to 38 luxury destination vacations, 26 private jet flights, VIP sports passes, and entry to private, exclusive golf clubs. Not a bad life if you can have it handed to you on a silver platter. 

All in all, then, isn’t the Harvard-educated, 19th-century author of tales like Ragged Dick our guy? But alas, there are flies in the ointment. For starters, Alger’s literary chops are suspect. He may not have the suitable literary flair, the talent, the heavyweight reputation to handle adeptly enough this portrait of a Supreme Court judge enjoying unreported millions of dollars of in-kind gifts. Put another way, Horatio’s books belong to the genre of children’s literature, and can’t we all agree that millions of dollars of ill-begotten gains isn’t child’s play? 

Moreover, Alger emerges as kind of a flawed vessel himself for such a storyline. Biographies of Alger that first appeared a century ago painted a pretty rosy picture in keeping with the Horatio Alger, Rags-to-Riches Myth. His actual life story is much darker. Ragged Dick brought fame to a former minister who was a fugitive from the law, thanks to having been charged with child molestation. Only Horatio is really more of a rags-to-riches-to-rags character, having ended his life in 1899 with a total of $950 and a gold watch in hand.  

Is Alger really the best we can do? I think not, especially if we consider the tale of American life nowadays to be one of people truly struggling to get by as opposed to most of us rising giddily to a mansion on Fifth Avenue and the like. No, Alger and his Myth clearly won’t do . . . but how about any of these other literary contenders instead? 

The Obsessive Hunt 

Naturally, on recounting that Alger’s most famous novel is titled Ragged Dick, all puerile jokes aside my thoughts gravitate to Moby Dick. Doesn’t Herman Melville and his classic tale of a sea captain crazed with lust for harpooning a great white whale fit the bill? Just “possibly” is my answer. The PRO side is seeded with arguments like the following: 1) Melville and of all his novels, Moby Dick in particular, has an epic narrative thrust equal to the vast size of what Thomas’s wealthy benefactors have bequeathed him in the dollar-value of their gifts; and 2) Doesn’t Thomas with his willful blindness to conflict-of-interest charges fully deserve to have his life tale told by somebody who has already written about a ship of fools?   

On the CON side, let’s be realistic. The arc of Thomas’s life story is far too obvious and pat to put it in Melville’s hands. What I mean to say is that Thomas has already given us the key to unlock his mystery. This is the Supreme guy who, after all, publicly grumbled in true sad-sack fashion that “The job is not worth doing for what they pay” (around $300,000 a year). How might you “supplement” your income? Forget about the Federalist Society. We’re talking real dough here. Become a Horatio Alger Association member, too. Its defining ethos is one of “meritocratic success,” achieving the American dream through hard work, pluck, and a little (no, make that lots of) luck thanks to whom you get to know. 

Call me cynical, but I don’t see Melville stooping to write about Thomas from beyond the grave. The real CON here besides the con job of Thomas’s merits as an open-minded judge of Supreme matters is that Thomas is a simpleton and so he’s no fit for Melville’s journey into the Great Beyond. 

For evidence, I rest my case with a quick story from my past. In graduate school at Brown University, I had as my mentor the African-American poet Michael S. Harper. One day in our writers’ workshop, I worried about a classmate’s poem because it dared explore the color white (again), rubbing up against Melville’s famous passage on unfavorable terms. In making my critique, I mentioned in passing that I hadn’t (yet) read Moby Dick, bringing forth a thunderclap of a response from Michael. “That’s a great thing you just said, Dan,” the great, big man intoned. “I’ve met all sorts of people who pretend to have read that book — and even more who pretend that they understand it.” 

In short, the richness of Melville in all of his ambiguity impoverishes Thomas by comparison. Time to move on to other, more potentially suitable literary options to unpack the goods of Thomas’s life.  

Clarence’s Complaint 

What’s boldly apparent about Thomas? I would say the guy’s pure, unadulterated lust for fame, fortune, and lots of sex (at least as portrayed in “adult” films). I therefore suspect Philip Roth might be just the right writer to be up to the task of adequately portraying the man who joined the Supreme Court in 1991. After all, I figure: Roth wouldn’t shy away from the lurid material at hand? And I do mean, hand. What’s more notorious in fine literature over the past half-century than Roth’s 1969 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, with its depiction of a man obsessed with masturbation using various props, including a piece of liver. 

With Roth and Portnoy’s Complaint as opposed to Alger and Ragged Dick, we don’t have to worry our pretty little heads about a 19th-century hypocrite proselytizing about how you can rise up (pun intended) through your own hard work and sound ethics to become a respectable, supremely comfortable member of the ruling class. Honesty isn’t what concerns Portnoy most. 

You recall (don’t you?!?) Thomas’s own Supremely unsuitable behavior as recounted by Anita Hill? To describe what we learned as explicit stuff hardly begins to tell the tale. To hear Hill tell it (and I for one utterly believe her; who would make up this kind of stuff?!?), Thomas was a boss utterly, fully committed to the injustice of sexual harassment. Never mind that Thomas had perversely been asked by Ronald Reagan to chair the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when the only opportunity Thomas was truly interested in was to see how often the guy could get laid by women working for him. 

As demure and soft-spoken as Hill (no relation) was, the details spoke for themselves. How can you find breathing room in the office when your boss is telling you about pornographic films he had watched involving women having sex with animals or being subject to rape? How can you find breathing room when your boss speaks graphically about his own sexual prowess, referencing a porn star by the name of Long Dong Silver? And let’s not overlook the single most notorious allegation: Thomas is drinking a Coke in his office when . . . looking at the can, he loudly asks for all around him to hear, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” (Odds are that disingenuous query was purloined from The Exorcist and adapted by Thomas for his use, despite his firmly denying having said that, in addition to denying having read The Exorcist, in which the character Burke Dennings says at a party, “There appear[s] to be an alien pubic hair floating around in my gin.” — And on Frontline, a Holy Cross or Yale classmate remembers Thomas making the exact same “joke”.)  

Naturally, when appearing before the U.S. Senate to land his confirmation to the highest court of (in)justice in our fair land, Thomas declared, “I deny each and every single allegation.” That wasn’t of course the only way the soon-to-be Supreme perjured himself. The guy also said he hadn’t yet “formulated” a position on Roe v. Wade. Sure enough. I believe him. Why not? 

Thomas is a slippery character who’s now a rock-solid, firm conservative member of the Court, and Portnoy is a slippery character, too, whose member . . . well, let’s not indulge in so many double entendres for fear that they’ll leave us blue in the face. I’m just saying that a good argument could be made that Roth suits Thomas to a T, and has the added advantage of having lived through all of the confirmation drama, right down to Thomas pulling the virtuoso stunt of pushing back — hard — against his adversaries by calling the contentious hearings “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” 

Such audacity from a guy who got nominated by George H. W. Bush because the President knew exactly how Thomas would fall in line in challenging affirmation action among other progressive preferences!  Who else in the contemporary literary pantheon might go, wow, I can’t resist a conflicted character as monumental as this one

Color Me Equally Outraged in My Own Way  

Before I rest my case, I call to the stand as my final witness here another acclaimed American novelist of late, the one and only Toni Morrison. Back when I was teaching English at what has now been renamed Missouri State University, I headed to a movie theater in Springfield to watch The Color Purple. “Oh my god, no!” screamed a woman in the audience behind me when the narrative led to the point when a couple of the female characters on screen were about to become lovers.  

Other people had their own criticisms of Morrison’s material, including black men who didn’t like how they were sometimes portrayed, i.e., as oppressors in their own way, no better than white men when it came down to it, as in the single most earth-shattering lyric I know of when it comes to intimacy. I’m talking about the trio of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris singing, “You don’t know what a man is until you have to please one.” 

Nobody knows Thomas better than his own wife, Ginni. And yet he apparently hardly knows her at all. In case you haven’t been paying sufficient attention, Ginni is notable, for among other things, lobbying top Donald Trump administration officials and state lawmakers to overturn the 2020 election, behavior which landed her before the January 6th Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. According to Clarence, however, his wife’s supremely high-stakes political shenanigans and outspoken hard-right-wing convictions don’t enter into consideration when he considers his votes on the Court.  

Are we really to believe Clarence is a saint with clean hands? In The Color Purple, a less-than-noble Shug Avery at least points out to Celie the beauty of purple flowers bestowed upon the earth by God, whereas Clarence and Ginni’s shared lives seem mostly to hover around access to power and the beauty of the largesse bestowed of them by their many benefactors. Call me cynical but I’ve read  the ProPublica report revealing that Harlan Crow paid thousands in school tuition for Thomas’s grandnephew . . . and The Washington Post report that Leonard Leo secretly paid Ginni $25,000 for “survey services” around the time the Supremes were handed a brief advocating for a cause near-and-dear to the heart of the nonprofit Leo is associated with. 

Mere trifles, you say, and Morrison would agree if only she were around still to speak up. What were her themes? Forget Horatio Alger and the American Dream. The nightmare of the Black American experience in a frequently unjust society, where conflicts of race, class and sex continue to haunt our citizens and mar our cultural identities, constitutes her great, enduring theme.  

Surely, Morrison would recognize in the twisted, intertwined tale of Clarence and Ginni conflicts of interest on a supreme, epic scale. The notion of judicial fairness, independence and impartiality is such a myth that there’s even a book called Injustices about the history of the Supreme Court, a book whose gory tales of how the Court was the midwife of Jim Crow and the dead hand of the Confederacy wouldn’t surprise Morrison one iota. 

Did Thomas recuse himself when the Court decided whether Trump White House documents could be released to the House January 6th Committee? Surely, you can guess the answer easily enough. Did Thomas find it inappropriate that Crow would purchase Thomas’s mother’s home to one day convert it into a museum honoring Thomas, while in the meantime she can live there rent-free? No worries.  

Great men must be honored somehow, by whichever American novelist might dare portray Thomas someday, despite Mark Twain’s admonition that, “The only problem with fiction is that it has to make sense.” If Chief Justice Roberts has his way, Thomas’s conduct will avoid formal, scolding scrutiny, leaving literature to seize the day.

Real life is a crazy quilt, a conundrum, a travesty of justice. Accordingly, who better to serve on the highest court in our fair land than the supremely honorable Mr. Thomas? I kid you not.

Source images courtesy of Feoktistova via adobestock.com.


Daniel A. Hill, PhD, is an emotional intelligence expert who has served as an analyst of U.S. presidential candidates and debates for the past 20 years for major media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and Reuters as well as ABC’s “Good Morning, America” and NBC’s “The Today Show.” Among his 10 books is Two Cheers for Democracy  about U.S. presidents and notable foreign leaders. Following his dissertation on the nonfiction writings of James Baldwin, Joan Didion and Norman Mailer, Dan now hosts the podcast Great New American Essays on the New Books Network (NBN), the world’s largest book review platform. Previous essays have been noted with honor in three editions of The Best American Essays.