Since Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court 16 years ago, he has largely remained silent, and his silence has become part of his mythology. He rarely speaks from the bench. He hasn't responded to legions of critics. His judicial opinions reveal a powerful voice, but his story had been written by others.
Now Thomas has chosen to speak, forcefully and bluntly, in his new book, "My Grandfather's Son," and in a series of interviews with ABC News over four days that can only be described as extraordinary for their scope and intensity. He talks with almost painful candor — all but unprecedented for a public official — about his life and personal struggles, his fears and failings, his anger and his regrets.
In the book, Thomas describes his searing experiences, but often stops without elaboration or reflection. In his interviews with ABC News, a fuller picture emerges of the man Thomas was and is today — and why he holds the views he does. This portrait will confound his critics and surprise his supporters.
"It's just about a human life," Thomas says in a wide-ranging interview at his Virginia home. He emphasizes the word "human."
During the course of nearly seven hours of interviews, he reveals an anger long quelled, but easily tapped, over his controversial confirmation hearings, which he sees entirely through the prism of race. And, rejecting efforts by his admirers to portray him as a flawless model, he painfully recounts periods of alcohol use and acute financial problems as a young professional and even a fleeting thought of suicide.
In the end, he views his life as one of triumph and inspiration — not only over ugly racial stereotypes he encountered throughout his life, but over his own moments of self doubt and pain.
Thomas's most deeply felt opinions are about race, and he pulls no punches. For Thomas, the menacing racists who donned white sheets in the segregated South of his childhood are as bad or worse as the northern liberal zealots in suits and ties.
"These people who claim to be progressive … have been far more vicious to me than any southerner," Thomas says, "and it is purely ideological."
Thomas talks about the virulent racism he encountered growing up in the segregated South, when blacks were considered second-class citizens and kept separate from whites by law, and he equates those attitudes with the stereotypes he believes people hold today.
"People get bent out of shape about the fact that when I was a kid, you could not drink out of certain water fountains. Well, the water was the same. My grandfather always said that, 'The water's exactly the same.' But those same people are extremely comfortable saying I can't drink from this fountain of knowledge," Thomas says. "They certainly don't see themselves as being like the bigots in the South. Well, I've lived both experiences. And I really don't see that they're any different from them."
He says his critics — the people who question whether he is smart or qualified to be on the Court or who suggest he merely does what a white Supreme Court colleague dictates — are as also as bigoted as the whites of his childhood in the deep South.
"People feel free to say about me what they think about lots of blacks," Thomas said in an interview in his chambers at the Supreme Court. "Because of the heterodox views I've taken, they have license to say it about me with impunity."