Even before the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings had begun, it was clear that a public relations battle was brewing about the administration’s choice. President Bush clumsily said, at the announcement of Thomas’ nomination, that he was the “best qualified [nominee] at this time.” This was odd phrasing, to be sure. In typical Bush fashion, the president floundered while trying too hard to explain what he really didn’t mean:
“I’ve kept my word to the American people and the Senate by picking the best man for the job based on merits. And the fact that he’s a minority, so much the better. But that is not the factor, and I would strong resent any charge that might be forthcoming on quotas when it relates to appointing the best man to the court.
“Obviously, Judge Thomas is no Justice Marshall,” said John E.Jacob, National Urban League President. “But if he were, this administration would not have appointed him.”
In a statement on Thomas’ EEOC record, Mary Frances Berry, a member of the US Civil rights Commission said, “He demonstrated little interest in enforcing the law and responding to the complaints of those that had suffered discrimination on the job.”
At a July 18 press conference, the Congressional Black Caucus became the first black group to officially denounce Thomas’ nomination. US Rep. Edolphus Town, a Democrat from New York, and CBC chairman, reading a prepared statement, said, “We cannot ignore or excuse Clarence Thomas’ record, views and values merely because he is black. His view of constitutional rights as he has articulated them as a jurist, administrator and before the nation’s press, are inconsistent with the interests of the people we serve.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also voiced its opposition to the nomination and attempted to block it on the grounds that his record on civil rights was “reactionary.” Another influential liberal group- People for the American Way- also claimed that Thomas had shown an “overall disdain for the rule of law” in his previous posts as chairman of the EEOC and in the Department of Education under Reagan.
A USAToday poll of 402 African-Americans (July 5 1991), when asked whether Thomas’ views reflected the views of most blacks, more than half (52%) said “no” with the remaining equally divided between “yes” (24%) and “don’t know.”
The Bush Administration were well-aware of the challenges they faced in the Senate confirmation hearings. With Justice Souter becoming a somewhat undependable judge in terms of pushing the conservative agenda, Thomas was to be their ace in the hole.
The White House, panicked by the very real possibility of a rejection of their nominee, recruited a special team of handlers and image advisers. The main strategy was to play down Thomas’ lack of qualifications and experience and play up his rise from poverty, the human element.
A former presidential chief of staff and marketing expert, Kenneth Duberstein had been especially called upon to head up preparations for the hearings. The marketing of Thomas would concentrate on creating a positive image, on making Thomas a well-known and well-liked personality. The strategy team met three times a week and set about grooming the nominee. Teams of advisers would studiously rehearse with Thomas, even down to the movement of his hands and the tone of his voice. His former employer, John Danforth- also an ordained clergy, became his mentor and front man.
A little more about Danforth. John C. Danforth, Republican senator from Missouri, would become instrumental in Thomas’ confirmation hearing . The heir to the Ralston-Purina pet food company fortune had a long history of taking controversial views in the Senate. For example, he voted against imposing sanctions on SouthAfrica’s apartheid system in the 1980s and later, he would vote to cut funding for UN peacekeeping operations. As Sourcewatch states:
Based on these stances and Danforth’s current close association with several large corporations, law professor Marjorie Cohn warned that Danforth is a “right-wing zealot in moderate’s clothing.”
What are these special qualities? First, Clarence Thomas is his own person. President Bush had it absolutely right when he called him “fiercely independent.” Second, he laughs. To some, this may seem a trivial matter… The obvious strategy of interest groups trying to defeat a Supreme Court nominee is to suggest that there is something weird about the individual. I concede that there is something weird about Clarence Thomas, it is his laugh. It is the loudest laugh I have ever heard. It comes from deep inside and it shakes his body, and here is something at least as weird in this most up-tight of cities, the object of his laughter is most often himself. Third, he is serious, deeply serious in his commitment to make a contribution with his life.
His independence, his laughter and his seriousness were Danforth’s selling points. The subject of experience and qualifications was carefully avoided.
Another aspect of the strategy devised by White House spin doctors was not to comment of any potentially controversial issues. They had learned from the confirmation of Souter that the best policy was to avoid any strong statements or opinions. Nominee Bork had argued his positions and lectured the members of committee and Bork was subsequently rejected by the Senate. This, according to the handlers, showed them the path to confirmation. Provide the committee with nothing solid to fight against. Hide your real views and pass over questions as quickly as possible.
However, in Thomas’ case, it was quite a bit more problematic. One of the major problems with the Thomas nomination was Thomas himself. Many of his most controversial opinions, such as on abortion, his admiration for Farrakhan and so many other issues, were well-documented in easily-found speeches and essays. All of these could prove to be mine-fields under Senate scrutiny.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Joe Biden, tasked with interviewing Thomas found itself running up against a stone wall. When asked about his opinion on any volatile topic, Thomas would simply say he had formulated no particular opinion, despite much evidence to the contrary. If the senators on the committee found Thomas’ answers to be evasive, then such a strategy at least allowed him to avoid the traps his opponents had laid. However, the tactic came at a cost. It tended to reinforce the impression that Thomas was simply not honest.
Behind the scenes, Danforth and his wife would pray with Clarence and his spouse. In the hours before Thomas gave his final statement to the committee, Danforth played a cassette of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Danforth saw the entire Clarence Thomas affair as a kind of morality play, with Thomas’ being the good man against a monolithic system.
On September 27, 1991 the Senate Judiciary Committee took its scheduled vote. It appeared as if the Senate committee would easily confirm the Thomas nomination.
The outcome of the vote however came as a surprise.
An even split vote- seven to seven.
Without a clear recommendation, the confirmation process would now be forced to go to a Senate vote.
In the last of this series, I will take a look at the dramatic turn of events as the confirmation hearing moved to the Senate vote, the scandalous allegations against Thomas and the defense mounted by the Republicans.