Clarence Thomas Bitter? Why Are We Surprised?

At this point I’ve read two or three reviews of the new Clarence Thomas autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, and seen/heard a few TV and radio discussions of the book. Almost every commentator seems surprised, almost shocked, at Thomas’s anger and bitterness over his confirmation hearings 16 years ago, when he and  former associate Anita Hill locked horns on TV.

I’m surprised at all the  surprise–first, because of Thomas, and second, because his reaction is not all that uncommon.

In the case of Thomas, his smoldering anger over the hearings  is understandable if you just think about what happened.  He was accused in front of the whole world of being an overbearing office lecher/harrasser/porn lover/crude joke teller –based on accusations that were leaked  to the press. He denied all the charges.

If Thomas was telling the truth, he was  unjustly smeared and defamed in what he called “a high-tech lynching.” If he was lying, he was not only humiliated, he committed multiple acts of purgery and lied his way onto the Supreme Court. Whatever the truth of the matter–lecher or liar–it’s easy to see why he’s not all sweetness and forgiveness.

Beyond Thomas, it’s not at all unusual to find  successful people leading apparently enviable lives who are still furious over some ancient slight or misstep.

A year or so before he died, I wrote a magazine profile of Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts. One expert described him as “perhaps the most successful artist–not just cartoonist–of the 20th Century.” And yet, for all his accomplishment and riches, Schulz never forgave one wrong that was done to him:

When he was young and desperately needed work, he approached a publishing syndicate with some cartoons he’d done about some unusual kids. The syndicate decided to hire Schulz as a regular cartoonist, but they did not like the title he had given to his strip. So, in their wisdom, the suits came up with a new name: Peanuts.

Schulz immediately disliked the name, but he was in no position to do anything about it. And by the time he was, the name was stuck on a famous cartoon strip, books, movies,  stuffed dolls, lunchkits and other knick-knacks  bringing him millions of dollars a year. But as he told me that day in his office, he always thought the name was stupid and demeaning (and illogical, since nobody in the strip was called “Peanuts.”)

When Schulz told me that story, almost 50 years after it happened,  he shook his head and grimaced  as if he’d just gotten off the phone with the big shots at the syndicate. They made their decision,  he had to live with it. But he didn’t like it, and he never forgot, and he never forgave. The wound was still fresh. I wouldn’t expect to see Thomas mellow much, either.

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