The Best Man’

It has become President Bush’s habit never to anoint a Supreme Court justice without announcing that once more he has picked “the best man for the job on the merits” and thus further deepening the mystery of how he found him. Mr. Justice-designate Clarence Thomas and Mr. Justice David Souter both abide curiously beyond informed criticism. Their qualities are unknown; their careers are so undistinguished as to be barren of offense; and, beyond the personal, their merits appear chiefly conspicuous for an absence of demerits.

Judge Clarence Thomas spent much of the first days of his confirmation hearings in an atmosphere that fortifies the prior impression that he is safely, if not always comfortably, on his way to being Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas. The proceedings at once arrived at, and showed no sign of descending from, the high and depressurized levels of philosophical discussion, an activity peculiarly fruitless in the absence of philosophical coherence.

Judge Thomas is being assessed as an abstraction and should look forward to welcome by the majority and no worse than resignation from the minority. He will, however, still be the puzzle that awaits a solution; and, if we don’t yet know what he will become, we may find some excuse in the circumstances that have so far kept him from knowing just who he is.

Might not his true explanation reside not in his teens, when he was segregated, but in his twenties, when he was presumably integrated? For when 1968 spread forth the path of opportunity to select young African Americans like himself, it also confined their travels to approval trips.

By 1968 the Civil Rights laws had been in force for four years, and the problems of the masses of color looked more and more intractable. The consequence was liberal despair about the old remedies and conservative disdain for any remedies at all. The emergence of black conservative spokesmen was a natural response to felt necessities in their time.

Degrees of facility in telling us about them always had their place in such black success as there had been in America; and, even now, any person of color ready to agree with us about the small deservings of the poor and the black can expect gratitude for comforting our vaguely uneasy consciences.

That is the service Clarence Thomas rendered on his approval trip; and it put him to explaining away his addresses to the Heritage Foundation and other forums hardly unique in our discourse for seldom inviting speakers unprepared to say what the audience wants to hear.

Thomas’s view of reality is no doubt more complicated than these blitherings suggested. It may indeed be tormented enough to impel him to near caricatures of the serene and the complacent. His job at the Heritage Foundation was to provide satisfaction; and his efforts at his confirmation hearings to swear how hard he had tried not to seemed almost pathetically suggestive of an inner quarrel. He had put on a mask for the …

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