WASHINGTON — When Clarence Thomas stepped onto the national stage last Monday in Kennebunkport, Me., cheers erupted at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency he headed for eight years. That longtime employees of the often beleaguered commission cheered Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court is a story in itself.
Immediately after President George Bush introduced Thomas, members of the press started calling the commission: "Who is this Clarence Thomas?"
For those of us who were his colleagues, the answer is quite simple: He is dignified, reflective, direct, careful, courageous--a friendly, funny man with a hearty laugh. The Clarence Thomas you see is the Clarence Thomas you get.
Everyone at the EEOC remembers that his arrival in May, 1982, aroused a good measure of skepticism from a staff weary of uncertainty and leery of this Reagan-appointed black man. They, too, asked, "Who is this Clarence Thomas?"
This past week, I've been reminiscing with some of the men and women of the EEOC about then-Chairman Thomas. One theme stands out: Thomas profoundly influenced the commission and the men and women who work for it. At his renomination hearings in 1987, the line to get into the committee room wound around the corridors of the Dirksen Building, so many commission employees had taken annual leave to go down and support their leader.
And lead he did. Clarence challenged his staff to do better, convinced them that he and the agency needed their best. He told them that tough times were ahead (he was right), that they were going to have to break some crockery but, together, they would pick up the pieces and create a revitalized agency of which they could all be proud. And he did just that--when he left the commission, the new building for which he had fought so hard was named the Thomas Building. There were cheers that day as well.
Clarence loves to tell the story of the day he arrived at the EEOC. His predecessor had left him the title of "chair," but when he finally gained admittance to his office--he had trouble convincing the guard that he, Clarence Thomas, was the new chairman of the EEOC--no chair sat behind his desk. Neither chair, system nor semblance of organization was to be found. Clarence got himself a chair and a Classic Coke, put his grandfather's and his son's pictures on his desk (it at least remained) and went to work.
Much has been written about Myers Anderson, Clarence's grandfather, the most profound influence on his life. When I first came to the commission in late 1984, Anderson had only died recently. When Clarence talked about him, his eyes welled up. Anderson's injunctions to his grandson to "make something of yourself," that "Mr. Can't is dead, I helped bury him" became the rallying cries for an agency in which "Mr. Can't" had been very much alive. The men and women of the EEOC love Clarence because, in a real sense, he is one of them.
In the early days of his chairmanship, he would go down to the finance section so often that he had his own chair there. The supervisors were not sure that the chairman's frequent, unannounced visits were necessarily a good thing. But as staffer Mary Stringer remembered this week: "We closed the books on Sept. 30th and if we were here 'til two in the morning, Clarence was here."
"Pop" Tate, once janitor, now roving EEOC jack-of-all-trades, is keeping a scrapbook of everything that's being written about his friend, Judge Thomas. "Pop" never quite understood how anyone who lived in Washington could root for the Dallas Cowboys, but Clarence is nothing if not an independent thinker.
Clarence does not uncritically accept orthodoxy of any stripe. He questions cliches like "color-blind society," knowing full well that color and race are facts of life, factors in life. You can make them a plus, make them a minus, but you can't erase them.
Clarence publicly questioned the Reagan Administration's seeming reluctance to broaden the Republican Party. He insisted that his party had room for people of all colors, faiths, conditions and classes. That's why he was an inspiring head of the EEOC. His liberating message to all who know him is: You count because of who you are and what you do, not because of what goods you possess or to what race (or religion) you belong.
And that's the significance of his appointment. Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings present a historic opportunity to reassure the people of this country that the American dream lives. The men and women of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are getting ready to cheer again.