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It began at the beginning, when Bush asserted that Thomas had been chosen because he was highly qualified for the job -- adding weirdly that "we're not going to discriminate against ((him because)) he's black." I've "kept my word to the American people," said the President, "by picking the best man for the job on the merits."
The best man? In off-the-record comments, White House aides agree with the analysis of Harvard law professor Christopher Edley: "If Thomas were white, he would not have been nominated . . . ((Bush's)) meritocratic language is fatuous unless one takes both color and ideology into account in deciding what it means to be the best qualified."
Contrast Bush's refusal to state the obvious with the pride Lyndon Johnson expressed when he nominated Thurgood Marshall in 1967: "I believe it is the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place." By all accounts, Bush understands and appreciates the moral rightness of having a black on the Supreme Court and undoubtedly would have liked to echo Johnson. Had he done so, he would have immeasurably aided the national discussion of race. But politics trumped morality. The President's opposition to quotas, repeated over the years, constrained him from saying what he should have said, and what we can only hope he wishes he had been politically capable of saying: "Sometimes affirmative action makes sense, and this is one of those times."
As the discourse began with a lie, so the confirmation process itself became mired in evasions, half-truths and bullying. Even the N.A.A.C.P., which opposed Thomas, succumbed. Despite its dedication to equality and free expression, the national leadership in Washington threatened officers and members of the Compton, Calif., branch with expulsion because they endorsed Thomas.
In his September appearance before the judiciary committee, Thomas himself was a disaster. Prepped by White House handlers to avoid anything that smacked of controversy, however mild, Thomas repeatedly invoked the compelling tale of his rags-to-fame life. On everything else, he was an empty vessel. For all that he revealed about his legal philosophy, he may as well have been wearing a bag over his head. When pressed on matters of moment, he backed away from most every opinion he had ever expressed. Incredibly, he told Senators with a straight face that he had "no opinion" on Roe v. Wade, thus marking himself as probably the only person in the U.S. without a view on the Supreme Court's landmark abortion-rights decision. "Thomas' answers and explanations about previous speeches, articles and positions," said Alabama Senator Howell Heflin, "raised thoughts of inconsistencies, ambiguities, contradictions, lack of scholarship, lack of convictions and instability."