Dirty Little Secrets

Guest Commentary

FEW OF US who have followed the nomination and confirmation process of Clarence Thomas leave it with any sense of satisfaction, pleasure or vindication.

Now that it is concluded, some will hope that we can put aside the rancor and cynicism that have surrounded it and get on with whatever business was interrupted by the events of the past 100-plus days. This, however, is neither possible nor desirable, for this nomination and the phenomena attending it have raised up for all to see and hear a litany of ugly little secrets that bedevil our best efforts at civic piety.

Nothing in recent American life--not Watergate, not Iran-contra, not the debate on the Persian Gulf War--has served to reveal more clearly than the Thomas episode the fragility of the American social experiment. Some will say, as they say at the close of every political crisis, "When all is said and done, the system worked, the people were heard and justice was done."

That was the consensus view at the close of Watergate. Now, as the Iran-contra proceedings grind toward an end, it is less apparent. There was a moment of honor during the congressional debate at the time of the Gulf War. But as we survey the moral and political debris of the past three months, only a fool or a professional optimist could rejoice in such a consensus surrounding Thomas. What went wrong?

Were I thought qualified to offer a course at the Kennedy School of Government, I would do so under the title "Three Nasty Problems in the History of American Life: Race, Sex and Democracy." Such a course would examine the radical assumption, illustrated by the present controversy, that we Americans have never been able to examine our original sin of racism, our prurient love-hate relationship with sex (and its unavoidable relationship to race) and the inherent imperfections of our untidy and uncritical democracy.


I would argue that the moral foundations of our country and their religious expressions are flawed because of the sins of racial bigotry and sexual discrimination. Further, I would argue that our social compact is flawed because of our inability and unwillingness to take these flaws seriously. Nothing in recent history has better served to show the tragic interrelationship of these flaws than the Thomas case.

In the matter of race, let us not forget Thurgood Marshall, who would not have had a seat to vacate for Thomas had the nation not sought to address fundamental racial problems by attending to the movement for racial justice in America, which culminated in his nomination to the court.

Although I have not read the clippings of the Marshall confirmation process, I am aware that there were strong objections. But it is hard to recall anything but joy in the Black community over the nomination of "one of our own." With this, it seemed, the sin of slavery had been vitiated.

BUT IT WAS not so simple. With the nomination of a second Black to the court a generation later, we must confront the fact that the Black community is not the monolithic and grateful child of the civil rights movement it was once thought to be, but admits of a far greater diversity and complexity than many would care to admit.

The rising tide of Black interest in the party of Lincoln is but a sign of this. The passionate opponents of Thomas oppose him not so much for his alleged defects of character or competence, but fundamentally because his views no longer conform to views acceptable to the liberal establishment so long accustomed to framing our moral and political agenda.

The unholy alliance of liberal political interest groups, white journalists and that unelected elite, the senatorial staffers, has worked overtime to preserve their own entrenched positions in the face of an ascendancy of views contrary to their own.

The spectacle of this elite liberal junta working at the behest of such senators as Edward M. Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum was never more clearly revealed than in the unconscionable exploitation of Anita F. Hill. That these senators and their agents perceive Thomas to be a threat to the republic seems to justify for them their abusive and destructive tactics. Their high minded political passions notwithstanding, they illustrate the old dictum that a surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice, because a surplus of virtue is never subject to the constraints of conscience.

In this case, both Thomas and Hill are the victims of this misplaced moral energy. On behalf of what I am sure the senators regarded as "the greater good," Hill was exploited to prevent Thomas's elevation to the court--at a great cost to them both. Hill and Thomas were expendable.

If there is a villain to this story, it has to be this liberal political establishment so wed to its paternal power over American Blacks that it will stop at nothing--and stoop to anything--to prevent the inevitable erosion of power that an articulate and unbeholden new Black leadership represents. If anyone was "out of touch with reality," to quote Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), it was what's left of the left.

That the critical charges against Thomas should be made by a Black woman seems to combine in one ugly and convenient episode America's pathological obsession with race and sex. At least two senators were pleased to point this out in the form of an incredulous question: How could race be a factor in these charges when both the accuser and the accused were Black?

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