When a 20-year-old incident prompts you to pick up the phone to rehash a piece of history that wasn't even your own, there's something serious going on. At least that was my reaction when I heard that Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, called Anita Hill to demand an apology from her for what Hill had "done" to her husband!
We all have things we stay angry about. I was plenty peeved when my law school boyfriend thought it was a good idea a couple of decades ago to give me kitchen knives for my birthday (only romantic in a Fatal Attraction sort of way), but it's not something I think about anymore other than as occasional comic fodder. I've moved on.
Apparently Ginni Thomas hasn't.
I say it's to divert attention from her growing vocal alliance with the Tea Party that could become a political hazard for her husband.
This episode, which felt like a kind of phone stalking, brought back my "I can't believe we confirmed a man to the Supreme Court who apparently talked with his staff about porn, bestiality, and (don't listen my Diet Coke-loving friends) pubic hair" nightmare I had during Thomas' confirmation hearings when I was still a starry-eyed law firm junior associate.
I know there are people who disagree with my take. But regardless of what anyone thought at the time, it happened 20 years ago. If Anita Hill has moved on, becoming a professor at several universities, including her current position at Brandeis, you'd think Thomas and his family would have. After all, he won.
He made it on to the Supreme Court and somehow managed to convince enough people that either Hill was making up some crazy sexual harassment stories or that it was inconsequential. (Although I don't believe for a minute that any woman could make up such detailed and consistent accounts of such extreme inappropriate behavior and bring herself to testify about it in front of Congress and the world, knowing full well she would be the one to take the brunt of the trash talk.)
Thomas confirmed it was indeed her who picked up the phone and left the following message on Hill's office answering machine:
Good morning, Anita Hill, it’s Ginni Thomas. I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought and certainly pray about this and come to understand why you did what you did. Okay have a good day.
So what in the world would prompt the wife of a Supreme Court justice to pick up the phone at 7:30 in the morning one day and think, "Hey! I'm going to call up Anita and see if I can worm an apology out of her!"? If it had happened at 2 a.m., after a long night of drinking, at least it would make a little more sense. There's another reason that I can think of -- the uncomfortable backlash that her newfound political and public persona is causing.
Thomas has become increasingly active in right-wing politics in the last few years and that raises the whole appearance of impropriety thing for her husband with her Tea Party advocacy. Thomas founded a group in 2009 called Liberty Central, a non-profit conservative lobbying group, but she's also become a darling of the Tea Party set, especially women. Part of Thomas' political currency for those who follow her is based on being a righteous woman married to a righteous man. But when she starts getting into a part of the political world that could make her husband seem more partisan than he already is, that creates an issue for cases he rules on, what they call in the judicial business "the appearance of impropriety" -- it doesn't matter if it is bad, it only matters if it looks bad.
Whether or not Justice Thomas can in good conscience rule on certain cases in the future (like, say, that Citizens United case about political fundraising) if his wife is at the heart of conservative political activity is an issue that I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to address. And it will be harder still for him to maintain that he can seem judicially impartial when his wife is taking up the cause of the extreme right.
So if your personal activities are getting a lot of attention, shift the focus, hope the media follows, and then ... play the victim! That card has worked well for Sarah Palin, so why not for Ginni Thomas?
While we're all talking about her voicemail message, maybe no one will notice that even if it's not illegal, it's not good a thing for the spouse of a Supreme Court justice to be a political operative.
Image via Liberty Central