One must praise conservative material that airs on PBS for the same reason one must take note of shooting stars: for the comparative rarity and brevity of the experience. Yet high praise is due to the taxpayer-funded network for airing the magisterial documentary Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words on May 18.
Much of the justice’s rags-to-black-robes story had been told in his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, but without his own resonant voice and Solomonic demeanor. Much of the two-hour documentary consists of Thomas speaking across the table to an unseen interviewer. Yet the gravity of Thomas’ physical and intellectual presence is palpable.
One is swept away by how much of his influence was religious. Thomas says his success began when his grandfather, Myers Anderson, instilled a biblical worldview in his young mind:
He thought we were destined to have to work for everything because of what happened in the Garden of Eden because of our fallen nature. We would have to earn everything by the sweat of our brow. That was biblical. And we would have to work from sun to sun—biblical. The philosophy of life that he had came from biblical sources.
The lessons came as his grandfather made Thomas and his brother, also named Myers, work on his farm in order to keep them away from the “riffraff” in Pin Point, Georgia. “The family farm and our unheated oil truck became my most important classrooms, the schools in which my grandfather passed on the wisdom he had acquired as an ill-educated, modestly successful black man in the Deep South,” Thomas says. His grandfather’s lack of formal education forced him to live in the real world, he adds—a leitmotif of Thomas’ later epiphanies. This influence was magnified by the Irish nuns at Saint Benedict the Moor Catholic School, who opposed segregation and “were on our side from day one.”
Yet these lessons would be buried by the power of a rotten religious example. Thomas could not reconcile himself to the Catholic Church’s ambivalence toward racial segregation, a political denial of our inherent human dignity which he felt required the full-throated condemnation of Christians everywhere. When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, one of Thomas’ fellow students at Saint John Vianney Minor Seminary made sure the only black student heard him say, “I hope the son of a bitch dies.” That drove Thomas to forget any sense of vocation, to leave the seminary and, after his grandfather threw him out, to move back in with his mother.
In the summer of 1968, he soon fell prey to what MLK Jr. called “the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” That year, he entered Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and formed a black student union that idolized such figures as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, and Huey P. Newton. In 1970, he fomented a riot in Harvard Square inspired by nothing more than his rage. On his way back to his dorm room at 4 a.m., he stopped before the chapel and prayed for the first time in almost two years. “I said, ‘If you take anger out of my heart, I’ll never hate again,’” Thomas remembers. He credits his transformation to that very moment.
In law school, he described himself as a “lazy libertarian,” rejecting all man-made strictures, whether from compulsion of law, social habit, or ingrained religious precept. However, he began to see the limitations of ideology when his son, Jamal, was born the February of his sophomore year at Yale Law. At the time, Boston’s forced racial busing policy exploded into violence. Racial busing “didn’t make any sense to me,” he says. “Someone has a theory, and then they insert human beings into their theory.” His son, he vowed, would not become a human guinea pig.
Yet the private sector can offend in the same way. When he confronted Monsanto’s Affirmative Action director years later about the glacial pace of African-American employees’ promotions, the director, who was black, defended himself by pointing to his documented compliance with federal guidelines. “We’re looking at numbers, and the numbers prove everything, and human beings are having a lot of difficulties,” Thomas says incredulously.
After graduation he got only one job offer: working for Missouri Attorney General John Danforth, which he took although he says “the idea of working for a Republican was repulsive.” His relationship with Danforth would make him a public figure—and a target, because he refuses “to have my ideas assigned to me as though I was an intellectual slave because I’m black.” It would force him to confront a crime so brutal that it became “one of those Road-to-Damascus moments” in his legal metamorphosis. It would introduce him to the documents that would settle his view of the Constitution—and, indirectly, to his wife, Ginni. It would put him on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and on the fast track to the Supreme Court. When he gave his moving “high-tech lynching” testimony, it was Sen. Danforth—also an ordained Episcopal priest—who, in Clarence Thomas’ words, “exhorted me to go in the name of the Holy Ghost.” Ginni says she “knew that God was with him, because I knew he wasn’t doing that on his own.”
If God be for him, who could be against him? The numbers boggle the mind: feminist groups interested in protecting abortion, Affirmative Action groups, labor unions, political figures of the opposition party. He soon found, like his old comrades, the Left was willing to sink his nomination by any means necessary.
“I felt as though in my life I had been looking at the wrong people as to the people who would be problematic to me,” he confesses. “We were told, ‘Oh, it’s going to be the bigot in the pickup truck. It’s going to be the Klansman. It’s going to be the rural sheriff.’”
“[U]ltimately the biggest impediment was the modern day liberal,” he says, because “they have the power to caricature you.” In a prophetic moment, he warns the politics of personal destruction know neither bounds nor party.
In a lighter exchange, Thomas notes that then-Senator Joe Biden caricatured natural law during his September 1991 confirmation hearing. When asked to summarize Biden’s argument during, Thomas replies, “Who knows? I had no idea what he was talking about.” During formal proceedings with politicians, “you have to sit there and look attentively at people you know have no idea what they’re talking about … and you have no idea what they are talking about.”
Thomas found himself similarly at a loss for words at the sexual harassment allegations of Anita Hill, who later told former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., “that she had felt ‘manipulated‘ by pro-choice feminists,” Myron Magnet writes in his book, Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution. Magnet’s book offers an alternative explanation of where Hill may have found every piece of her testimony other than from Thomas.
After his skin-of-the-teeth confirmation, Thomas earned a reputation as someone rarely heard audibly from the bench. He sat silent for a decade, while his associates engaged in jurisprudential sparring at the bench. Thomas explains that justices hear the case; they do not argue it. “The referee in the game should not be a participant in the game,” he says.
But his rulings have the resonance and integrity of an originalist thinker. His jurisprudence is the opposite of the view that the “guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations.” The only “living Constitution” he embraces gives life to the views of the Founders, who “adopted a written Constitution precisely because it has a fixed meaning that does not change.” Thomas explains his views with evident passion:
The framers understood natural law and natural rights in a certain way, and it is an underpinning of our Declaration, which then becomes the foundation for the Constitution. They start with the rights of the individual, and where do they come from? They come from God. They’re transcendent. And you give up some of those rights in order to be governed. … And now you give up only so many as necessary to be governed by your consent. And hence, limited government, enumerated powers, separation of powers, federalism, and judicial review.
He has furthered their understanding by writing more opinions than any other sitting justice. He frequently pens concurrences, as well as dissents, to establish a precedent that future jurists can use to restore America’s constitutional order. In this, we can agree with the words of President George H.W. Bush at Thomas’ swearing in ceremony that “America is blessed to have a man of this character serve on its highest court.”
Giving the Founders’ views a voice through his decisions, he has powerfully conveyed the human dignity present in all people from the moment of conception. This dignity means that all human beings should be equal before the law; no branch of the government should “distribute benefits on the basis of race” (Adarand Constructors Inc v. Pena, 1995). He respects the plain meaning of the law. His dissent in Gonzales v. Raich (2005) struck at the heart of New Deal jurisprudence, Wickard v. Filburn, which allows the federal government to classify virtually any activity as interstate commerce subject to federal oversight and regulation. Dissenting from the execrable Kelo v. New London ruling, he wrote that “property is a natural, fundamental right.” His ruling in Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001) affirmed the right of religious organizations to have the same right to public facilities as any other student group without “viewpoint” discrimination. Perhaps PBS’s decision to air this documentary is a nod toward this principle? One can hope.
Allowing Thomas two hours’ airtime caused no small amount of consternation on the Left—which remains obsessed with the few moments it has lost, from Thomas’ confirmation and the Equal Rights Amendment to the proper date of our nation’s founding. David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun wrote that Created Equal “feels more like hagiography than what I think of as a documentary with balancing voices.” One could say the same of PBS’s documentaries about Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, or the economic policies of the People’s Republic of China. This engrossing, must-see documentary makes a good, belated sequel to the network’s last offering with a similar viewpoint, Johan Norberg’s Sweden: Lessons for America. It fits happily with the network’s history as the home of William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line and two miniseries explaining Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose.
Producer Michael Pack said he settled on the low-frills style, because if he interviewed a host of other experts, “I thought I would lose Clarence Thomas’ voice.” Created Equal allows Thomas’ singular voice of originalist thought to be heard at last.
You can watch the full documentary below: