Clarence Thomas’s Grandfather

Elizabeth Nowicki —  2 October 2007

I would have to think long and hard about writing a book titled “My Grandfather’s Daughter.”  If I wrote such a book, you see, I would feel compelled to do justice to the memory of my grandfather(s) with the book.  The book would need to be incredibly well-written, well-researched, and respectful, to reflect positively on the memories of two men who had impeccable moral fiber, character, and work ethic.  My mother’s father was a hard-working immigrant, who came to this country as a teenager with no money and no English language skills.  He worked two jobs for most of his life, he was promoted to a supervisor position in his blue-collar job where he was known for his kindness, fairness, and good nature, he raised four wonderful children, he lived an honorable life, and, when I reflect on him and all he stood for, I am motivated to work a little harder, be a little kinder, and love a little more.  My father’s father was a first generation American with little education, who worked his way up at GE to be a head foreman with GE’s Schenectady, New York, operations.  He, too, was known to be an exceedingly good manager, with a strong backbone and sense of fairness and justice.  He gave up his hard-earned position with GE and moved the family across the country to Arizona – no questions asked – when my father’s asthma proved unmanageable in the Northeast.  Years later, when the family was finally able to return to the Northeast, my grandfather spent his nights for an entire year building a home with his own bare hands for his family, after laboring long days in the factory.Â

My reverence for my two grandfathers is what underpins my … shock at Justice Clarence Thomas’s decision to take cheap shots at Anita Hill in Thomas’s new book titled “My Grandfather’s Son.”  Perhaps I am misunderstanding – perhaps Thomas viewed his grandfather as a man of weak character, with a propensity to hurt others and err on the side of needless, small-minded jabs.  I have not read Justice Thomas’s book, so I do not know.  But somehow I doubt he thought ill of his grandfather.

And, for that reason, the media quotes I have read that indicate Thomas revisits Anita Hill in his book to refer to her work as mediocre and her character as immature baffle me.  Why bother, Clarence Thomas?  Why take the opportunity to sling mud?  Why revisit Anita Hill personally?  The confirmation hearings for Justice Thomas were of historic import, and I certainly understand Thomas’s desire to memorialize the events.  What I do not understand, however, is Thomas’s choice to revisit negatively Anita Hill’s character and professional performance, and I think Thomas’s choice in this regard reflects poorly on him and, given the book’s title “My Grandfather’s Son,” his grandfather.

My father has a quote from his father that I cannot help but call to mind in light of Thomas’s comments about Hill.  The quote is:  “The other guy has got to live.”  I have always taken this quote to mean “cut the other guy some slack” or “just let it go.”  When I am in a position where I am in the right, and I can go in for the jugular, but I would have to do it at the expense of someone else who is just struggling to do the best they can, I stop, and I tell myself “the other guy has got to live.”  Were I in Thomas’s shoes, writing my autobiography, angry as I might be about the Anita Hill hearings even 15 years later, I would like to think that I would look seriously at the opportunity to slam Hill in my book but I would ultimately conclude “the other guy has got to live,” and I would pass up the chance to speak ill of her personally or professionally.  That is what I was raised to do; that is what my grandfathers would have wanted me to do.  I would like to think that I would have the strength of character to take the high road and err on the side of largess.

For that reason, even though, as a Catholic, Republican, conservative, I am perfectly teed up to favor Clarence Thomas, I cannot begin to understand why, in a book titled “My Grandfather’s Son,” Thomas would choose to take cheap shots at Anita Hill instead of taking the high road.  (Note that, because the book is not yet available, all I know about the book is what the media has written and Thomas himself has admitted.)

7 responses to Clarence Thomas’s Grandfather


    I suppose Anita Hill should have thought of your grandfather’s quote before she made public accusations against a Supreme Court nominee. Clarence Thomas’ memoir would have been laughed off if he didn’t address Anita Hill. In fact, if he didn’t address Anita Hill in his book his silence would have been taken as an admission of the veracity of her charges.

    No matter his influence on American law, Clarence Thomas will always be remembered for Anita Hill. While I do not know whether her accusations are accurate (although I have always raised my eyebrow at a Yale-educated DOL lawyer’s inability to confront sexual harrassment in the workplace), I suspect that Anita Hill had been in Washington long enough to know what she was in for if she “stepped forward”. Furthermore, the notoriety her testimony provided her most likely “made her life” and opened many career opportunity doors – at least in some quarters.
    I don’t know whose was right – but laying into Clarence Thomas for addressing his most notorious moment and getting his side of the story out does not appear to be denying Anita her livelihood. In fact, he spotted her 15 years to prove his comments wrong.


    Thanks for your response to my comments, Elizabeth.

    I did watch the excellent 60 minutes interview and went back to read the transcript after you responded (the relevant section below is found on page 7).

    Asked if the Anita Hill that testified was the same Anita Hill he knew at the EEOC, Thomas says, “She was not the demure, religious, conservative person that they portrayed. That’s not the person I knew. ”

    “Who’s the person you knew?” Kroft asks.

    “Well, I think she could defend herself. Let’s just put it that way. And she did not take slights very kindly. And anyone who did anything, she responded very quickly,” Thomas says.

    “Didn’t take ten years?” Kroft asks.

    “It didn’t take ten minutes,” Thomas says.

    In the book, he remembers her as an average employee whose behavior could sometimes be irritating, rude, and unprofessional, which he attributed to her youth. He was asked to write a number of recommendations for her and helped advance her career, and speculates that she was swept up in events and succumbed to a combination of ego, ambition and immaturity.

    It didn’t sound to me like Thomas was taking a cheap shot in the 60 minutes interview. The book certainly sounds critical in the interviewer’s characterization, yet not really inappropriate or harsh either. You may disagree, but then neither of us actually knows the context or how accurate the characterization is without reading the book.

    It’s fine that you don’t want to read the book given what you’ve learned about it. There are many books I also skip reading based on what I’ve heard about them. However, I hope that I would take the high road and read a book before I expressed a public opinion about the character of the author’s grandfather.

    By the way, here are a couple of posts from NRO on the Thomas/Hill issue that I think are worth reading.

    Matthew Franck on what gets left out of the story


    Ramesh Ponnuru on the focus on Thomas’ “Bitterness”

    Marie T. Reilly 3 October 2007 at 1:26 pm

    I recognized your grandfather’s observation: “The other guy has got to live” asan iteration of wisdom I inherited from my Irish grandparents: “It’s wrong to kick a dog because you can.” I’ve thought of it often at the very ‘jugular’ moments you described. The temptation, for lawyers especially, for victory at the expense of the necessarily vanquished is powerful. It is a blessing to leave something on the table for the other guy, who after all, has got to live. As an aside, you must be the other Catholic, Republican, conservative, woman in legal academy.


    I think this post is rather silly.

    Why get so hung-up on the book’s title?

    It’s a memoir, not a biography of his grandfather. The confirmation hearings were an important event in his life, and I’m sure he was encouraged by his publisher to elaborate on his thoughts.

    His position is not that the accusations were just a misunderstanding between two well-meaning colleagues. His position is that Hill lied dramatically; and thus he must think very poorly of her and her character. That’s a crucial part of the narrative.

    How could he not write about it?

    Elizabeth Nowicki 3 October 2007 at 6:55 am

    Phil, is where I found the transcript of the Thomas interview. MSNBC (or Fox) also had the quotes from the book. I appreciate your feedback on providing links – duly noted.

    As to withholding comment until I read the book, (a) I cannot say that I want to read the book, given the cheap shots at Hill, and (b) I did not need to read the whole book to conclude that taking more kicks at Hill, both personally and professionally, 16 years after it was all said and done, was not the high road.

    While we are on the topic of worthwile reading, however, on the top of my list of must-read books is Larry Mitchell’s new one, The Speculation Economy.


    It is extremely difficult to judge the context of Thomas’s latest comments on Anita Hill without actually reading the entire book. I suspect Anita Hill’s “role” in this book has been blown out of proportion by the media because the media has a long history of focusing on issues that sell such as sex and violence instead of on more deeper and thought provoking issues. Until I read the entire book, I am going to take the prudent step by withholding any more comment.


    Perhaps you should cut Thomas and his grandfather some slack at least until you have read the book. Maybe the media you are reading (hard to say since you didn’t provide a link) has its own agenda and has taken him out of context.

    It’s nice that you are big enough to be generous when you imagine yourself in Thomas’ shoes. however, I think your criticism of Thomas at this point is unfair and your saying that his statements in the book (that you haven’t read) reflect poorly on his grandfather reflects poorly on you. I won’t go so far as to claim that this reflects poorly on your ancestors.