1. Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in a new autobiography, labels Anita Hill his “most traitorous adversary,” once again denying the sexual harassment claims she made against him at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and calling her a mediocre but ambitious lawyer. If Thomas wants to dredge up his past in an autobiography for which he reportedly got a million-dollar advance, he’s fair game for those of us who want to dredge up his background, too. At Yale Law School, which I attended with Thomas in the early 1970s, he was notable only for his silence, within the classrooms and without. He wore a skullcap and a scowl. After graduating, he led an undistinguished legal career. Under Reagan, he ran the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission without interest or vigor, and was tapped by George H.W. Bush for the Supreme Court only because he was a black conservative. Since then, Thomas has spoken rarely from the bench, asked few questions of lawyers appearing before the Court, and has issued opinions often lacking clarity or coherence. By contrast, Anita Hill has had a distinguished career as a lawyer and legal scholar, teaching and publishing on issues ranging from legal contracts to discrimination. She was my colleague on the faculty of Brandeis, and I know few people with more integrity. There’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that she told the precise truth at Thomas’s confirmation hearing, about the lurid sexual comments and advances he made to her. In my view, he was unqualified then to be a Supreme Court justice, and America is much the worse for the ease by which the Senate was intimidated into confirming him by his claim of being subjected to a “high-tech lynching.”
2. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama
Bill Clinton was 46 when he was elected president in 1992 – the same age as Barack Obama is now. But Clinton has questioned Barack Obama’s readiness to become president – arguing that by the time he himself ran in 1992 he had far more experience than Obama. He also states that when he decided not to run in 1988 (when he was “closer to Senator Obama” in experience) he didn’t think he “knew enough and had served enough and done enough to run” at that point in his own career. While I can understand Bill Clinton’s eagerness to undermine his wife’s most significant primary opponent, he is not, I believe, completely ingenuous. I happened to talk with him in 1988 before he decided not to run, and also in 1991 before he decided to run the following year. His calculation at both times was decidedly rational and entirely political, based on whether he could win.
But more to the point, it strikes me as unfair to claim that Obama lacks relevant experience for the presidency. When he ran in 1992, Bill Clinton had been the governor of a small, rural southern state; as such, he had only limited experience with national issues and no foreign policy experience to speak of. Incidentally, at this point in the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton has served as an elected official in the U.S. Senate for not quite eight years, and before that a First Lady in the White House. Obama has so far held elective office for almost twelve years, at both levels of government – first as an Illinois state senator and then as a U.S. Senator. Before that he was a community organizer among Chicago’s poor, and then a civil rights lawyer – two experiences that in my view are critically relevant to anyone seeking to become president of all Americans. Obama’s international experience comes first hand – his father was a goat-herder in Kenya, and Obama spent a portion of his childhood in Indonesia. And as an African-American, with all the personal experience that implies, Obama seems particularly well qualified to understand the issues that need to be addressed in order to unify America and renew the nation’s moral authority around the world.