Speaking at the annual dinner and award ceremony of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), a conservative "think tank," Thomas urged his audience to vigorously promote views such as those that have brought him to prominence in the judicial and political arenas. The audience of several hundred people formed a virtual who's who of Republican Party conservatives.
"Today, as in the past," he said, "we will need a brave 'civic virtue' not a timid civility, to keep our republic. So, this evening, I leave you with the simple exhortation: 'Be not afraid!'"
Among the major newspapers covering the event was the business-oriented and pro-Republican daily the Wall Street Journal, which published excerpts from Thomas's speech on its op-ed page.
Vice President Richard Cheney and a number of members of President George Bush's cabinet were among those attending the February 13 dinner, along with Lynne Cheney, a prominent conservative activist on social and educational questions; Republican Party lawyer and Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr; Republican campaign strategist Karl Rove; and Dick Armey, a Congressman from Texas.
Thomas was the recipient of the AEI's annual Francis Boyer Award. Last year's winner and current AEI president Christopher DeMuth, who served as an official of President Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1984, presented Thomas with a bust of Abraham Lincoln. The award is given to "an eminent thinker who has made notable intellectual or practical contributions to improved public policy and social welfare," according to the AEI.
The Supreme Court justice, who is Black, joined a list of other conservative personalities who have received the award since its inception in 1977. They include Richard Cheney; Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford; former cabinet members Henry Kissinger and Jeanne Kirkpatrick--one of only two women; current chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan; and a number of bourgeois journalists, economists, businesspeople, and jurists.
The 1984 award winner Robert Bork introduced Thomas. Bork came to national attention in 1987, when his nomination by then-president Reagan for the Supreme Court went down to defeat in the face of widespread reaction against his right-wing views. During confirmation hearings in the senate, Bork had argued against abortion rights, affirmative action measures, and free-speech protections.
Four years later, when Thomas, a nominee with similar views, came before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he and his supporters in the administration of George Bush took a different tack. Thomas dodged most questions on his reactionary political positions during five days of hearings.
Thomas 'offends the right people'
In his introduction, Bork said Thomas "offends...just the right people" and referred to the December 12 Supreme Court decision that brought last year's closely contested presidential election to a conclusion. "The mood in Washington these days is ugly," he said of the debate surrounding the outcome of the election. While the ruling by the majority of the court has "major problems," he said, "the concurring opinion by three justices, Clarence Thomas among them, rests upon solid ground." Joining Thomas in that opinion were justices Antonin Scalia, who attended the award dinner, and William Rehnquist.
Thomas had also appeared in the public eye two weeks before the AEI dinner, when he presided over a swearing-in ceremony for Attorney General John Ashcroft, another right winger who downplayed his views in Senatorial confirmation hearings.
Thomas noted he and other "active citizens" are "often subject to truly vile attacks; they are branded as mean-spirited, racist, Uncle Tom, homophobic, sexist, etc.," such as when he spoke out in December 1980 against "affirmative action, welfare, school busing--policies that I felt were not well serving their intended beneficiaries."
Thomas attributed these responses to "brutes," rather than the fact that progressive changes in laws have been won as a by-product of mass social movements--including the battles to forge the industrial union movement, for Black and women's rights, and for expansion of democratic rights. These gains are not easily pushed back as the assaults upon them meet resistance from working people.
To justify Supreme Court decisions that erode gains won in earlier struggles, Thomas said he strictly interprets the constitution when issuing a judicial opinion. "The Constitution means what the delegates of the Philadelphia Convention and of the state ratifying conventions understood it to mean," he said. Pretending the court stands above the class struggle and the relationship of forces between the wealthy rulers and working people, he claimed judges should be "impartial referees who defend constitutional principles from attempts by particular interests (or even the people as a whole) to overwhelm them."
Thomas briefly turned to themes of "family values" and patriotism, saying, "It takes no education and no great intellect to know that it is best for children to be raised in two parent families."
"Duty, honor, country! There was a time when all was to be set aside for these," he said. "Too many show timidity today precisely when courage is required." Warning of an "overemphasis on civility" in public debates, he stated, "It does no good to argue ideas with those who will respond as brutes."
Thomas reiterated his description of his political opponents as "brutes" elsewhere in his speech, as he encouraged the audience to more energetically pursue their "cultural war" against the social advances won by working people.
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