Obama: I Wouldn’t Have Nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court

Barack Obama is being interviewed at the values forum of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. Rick Warren, the Church’s pastor, asked Obama which current Supreme Court Justice he would not have nominated.

Obama’s response: “I would not have nominated Clarence Thomas.” Obama said Thomas was not a “strong legal thinker.” Wow. It’s almost like Obama was implying that Thomas was the affirmative action appointee to the Court!

Interestingly enough, the audience applauded Obama’s comment.

UPDATE 1: I want to add a few more comments on the interviews with Obama and McCain.

My main observation is that the two candidates were completely, totally different in their rhetorical styles.

Obama was very thoughtful, reasoned, almost professorial. He approached the event as a conversation between himself and Pastor Warren.

John McCain was very direct, gave short answers, and got straight to the point. He spiced his comments with anecdotes, usually related to his imprisonment in Viet Nam. He treated the event as a townhall meeting, where Warren asked questions, and McCain directed his responses to the audience. Several times, McCain answered a question by saying “my friends.”

I thought that overall, John McCain was more effective. This is why:
• Several times, McCain spoke about his experience as a prisoner of war in Viet Nam. These reinforced the concept of McCain as a “hero warrior,” and appealed to the innate patriotism/nationalism in the audience. The stories were at times touching, and strongly resonated with the crowd.

To his disadvantage, Obama does not have a similarly touching tale to tell. Actually, he does: the fact that this biracial child of a “broken home” could accomplish what he has – such as graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and becoming the first African American nominee for president of a major political party- is a compelling story. But Obama is loath to talk about that, because discussions of his race are seen as a negative.

• McCain gave “political” answers to philosophical questions. For example, when asked how he would respond to evil in the world, McCain said “defeat it,” and he immediately went into a talk about Osama Bin Ladin and how he would go into hell to get him.

Obama spoke in more general terms about evil abroad and evil at home, and about the danger of doing evil in the name of good. This was all well and good, but it did not draw the sharp contrasts that McCain’s comments did.

• McCain was saying things that the audience wanted to hear, in the way they wanted to hear it. In particular, he said he was unwaveringly pro-life, and he blasted the “liberal” judges on the Supreme Court. This was red meat for the carnivorous taste buds of the evangelical audience. Some will call it pandering. But I think it’s fairer to say that McCain took advantage of this opportunity to speak to a right-leaning audience by taking a no-holds barred, un-nuanced approach to the issues.

Obama gave me the impression that he was slightly off his game. Perhaps he wasn’t as ready or as energetic as he could have been due to his vacation layoff. He wasn’t “bad,” but this was not the kind of engaging posture that I’ve seen in other Obama interviews.

Was this night a loss for Obama? No. He’s not going to get the vote of the hard-core evangelical base in the first place. This was going to be a tough venue for him. One would expect Obama to have some difficulties, and he did, especially on questions about abortion and faith based initiatives.

But on the other hand, he certainly didn’t look like the out out of touch elitist/celebrity that the Republicans have been painting him as in the past few weeks. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if Obama can simply repeat performances like this one, albeit with more energy and directness, most people will “get” that the personal attacks being leveled against him do not reflect who he is. I have the feeling that this particular GOP line of attack will prove to be a thud in the end. We’ll see.

I do think the single biggest “gaffe”of the night, or case where the candidate just blew it, was when McCain refused to answer a direct question about what income level made a person rich. McCain gave a rambling, searching-for-the-right-thing-to-say response, and eventually said, “How about $5 million? No, but seriously, I don’t think you can, I don’t think seriously that the point is I’m trying to make, seriously, and I’m sure that comment will be distorted…”

Of course McCain can’t or won’t answer the question. Once he says, for example, that a rich person is someone who makes over $250,000, then he can’t attack Obama’s tax plan as hurting middle class voters. (Obama’s tax proposal raise taxes for those who make over $250,000, and lowers taxes for everyone else.)

Will McCain’s comments be distorted? I think they should merely be repeated. The people can decide for themselves what they think of it.

UPDATE 2: At TheRoot.com, Sam Fullwood III has an article titled Why Barack Owes Clarence Thomas.

Fullwood says “Thomas’ conservatism destroyed the ‘unity myth’ that all black Americans were the same politically and ideologically. Partisan politics aside, that was a good thing, and we should give credit where it is due.”

I am at a loss to see how this “good thing” helped African Americans in general or Barack Obama in particular. This is the response I posted to the article:

It’s hard for me to understand how the appointment of Clarence Thomas changed anything for anybody. This was a status quo appointment, i.e., maintain the conservative/GOP status quo. Nothing changed for black or white America due to his appointment. Nothing.

I would bet that 7-8 out of 10 white Americans don’t know who he is; and that most of the remainder know little else about him beyond his name, race, and status as SCOTUS justice. He has nothing of the reputation or profile of an Alito or Scalia. In legal circles he is known as the judge who never asks questions during oral arguments. When a relative of mine went to a hearing for a case, she was disgusted to see Thomas was nodding off in the middle of the arguments.

I wish I could agree that Thomas somehow single-handedly challenged ignorant notions that people hold concerning black people. But I have seen no empirical evidence of any sort that would justify this, nor any anecdotal evidence. For the people I talk to, the binding memory for most is that Thomas was accused of sexual harassment. Far from liberating blacks from stereotypes, his nomination drama raised a number of questions that were never answered.

In the end, he won his Court seat by doing what conservatives routinely castigate “liberal blacks” for doing: playing the race card.

Thomas will forever be known as the man who used the phrase “high tech lynching.” Beyond that addition to the American lexicon, I don’t see what Obama or any African American owes to Clarence Thomas.

One thought on “Obama: I Wouldn’t Have Nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court

  1. Even most conservatives recognize that Clarence Thomas is not necessarily the best role model. His unflinching, unmoderated, some would even say unreconstructed view of the Constitution is only supported by the farthest right of the ideological spectrum.

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