I'm not sure that anyone really needs to read a biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But I must admit that Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas ($26.95, Doubleday, 432 pp.), by Washington Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, provides fascinating insights into the character of the man so many of us on the left have come to vilify.
And the new book's title is dead on. The man is uncomfortable in so many ways. Indeed, he seems uncomfortable in his very skin. And that is the crux of the man. He is a conservative's conservative whose votes and opinions fly opposite the major opinions, judgments and philosophies of the civil rights era. And he seems to reserve a special hatred for affirmative action.
Merida and Fletcher's book goes a long way in explaining the contrarian bellicosity that Thomas displays. He never got over the slights and injustices that school kids mete out to each other. Thomas was teased as a child for his Geechee-Gullah speech patterns, for his dark skin, for his Negroid features, for his kinky hair. And all this teasing came from other black kids, who Thomas viewed as the lighter-skinned black middleclass the families of doctors and lawyers who didn't accept his entrepreneurial grandfather who made a good living delivering heating oil.
At the same time he felt himself an outcast among the white students at the private Catholic schools he attended. So Thomas grew up a man without a country adrift with nothing to cling to but his increasingly rigid beliefs. He had a growing disgust with the way poor blacks became dependent on entitlements. He seems to think that whites see his achievements as tokenism or the result of quotas. The bottom line is most professional blacks deal with this attitude on a regular basis, but it doesn't turn into a bitter crusade against the very thing that helped them along the way. Nor does it lessen their professional aptitude and effectiveness.
The guy seems to have so much inner conflict that you begin to feel sorry for him. Then you look at the votes he has cast, and your compassion becomes tempered by how much he has harmed progressive causes, and how much potential he has to cause further harm. He favors capital punishment, supports executive power of the sort President Bush flouts, and isn't big on the rights of those accused of crimes. He voted against the University of Michigan in the affirmative action case that came before the court in 2005.
Although Anita Hill's is the name most often connected with Thomas' in public memory, there's relatively little discussion here of the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings where she accused her former boss of sexual harassment and nearly scuttled his ascension to the high court.
Still the authors make clear that if all the available evidence had been allowed in the hearing, Thomas would probably not have been confirmed.
Thomas is an odd character who is a friend to Rush Limbaugh and former Texas U.S. Rep. Dick Armey; he and Armey are fishing buddies. And Thomas defended Strom Thurmond from charges of racism because the senator spoke nicely to him when he first arrived in Washington. He seems to long to be accepted by black people but lives an insulated life protected from those who he feels have turned against him. He doesn't forget either, keeping a detailed mental checklist of those wrongs.
The odd inner workings of the Supreme Court come into focus in the latter part of the book. In some cases, Supreme Court justices' opinions have evolved as they study and argue about the U.S. Constitution. Don't expect Thomas to change. He is rigid and seems to have little curiosity that would change his hardened mind-set.
Discomfort is well-written and told in anecdotes that make for good storytelling. However, when you step back and consider the man, Clarence Thomas is scary.
ABCs of CEOs: Last weekend I spent time at the commencement for MBA and DBA students at the Anderson University in Anderson, Ind. Anderson bills itself as dedicated to "Academic and Christian discovery."
I discovered that I liked the people I met there. People with master's degrees and doctorates in business aren't the crowd I tend to run with. Those folks usually move in those heady strata of corporate management even the tip of the top the CEO.
Say, for instance, the CEO of our country, President George Bush, who has an MBA from Harvard.
Don't let Bush's incompetence, or that arrogant shit with an MBA at your office, taint your opinion of these Anderson graduates. Anderson is a Christian university, but don't confuse it with the right-wing conservative, Bible-thumping, do-anything-to-further-the-agenda-of-Karl-Rove types from Regent University that gave us Monica Goodling, a central figure in the Justice Department's attorney firing scandal, and some 149 other loyal Bushies.
The Anderson people are real Christians. They talk about accounting practices that do not hide the real state of the business. They talk about how incentive-based compensation like stock options might skew how business decisions are made. They talk about management having golden parachutes while rank-and-file workers get screwed out of their pensions and health care. They talk about pay equity.
Which brings us to the corporate filings on CEO pay that are more transparent than in the past. Under new federal rules, corporations must show all of the compensation executives receive including stock options and perks like use of the corporate jet.
For instance, Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally receives a base salary of $2 million. That's approximately equal to the amount about 37 UAW workers make before overtime. You might be able to argue that the guy running Ford should make $2 million.
But wait a minute. With bonus awards and stock options, Mulally's total pay is really more than $28 million. Now that's way out of whack, especially for a company that's been losing market share and money hand over fist.
General Motors CEO G. Rick Wagoner made about $10 million on salary, stock options and deferred compensation. What did did he do to be so richly rewarded? The company lost $2 billion in 2006, extracted cuts in health care costs from the union workers and bought out several thousand workers. They used the money saved from the buyouts and concessions to invest in Asia and other emerging markets, thereby creating a low-wage work force far away from America and our work and environmental rules.
Come fall, these guys who make millions per year and have golden parachutes will be leading negotiating teams that will tell union workers they need to get paid less for their hard work and pay more for health benefits.
"Our compensation system in the United States is outrageous," said one Anderson graduate. "It shows how much more some people are valued over others.
Maybe the government should collect résumés from Anderson University grads and leave the Regent gang alone.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]