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Celebrity Ayn Rand fans: Clarence Thomas

Celebrity Ayn Rand fans: Clarence Thomas

3 Mins
November 1, 2001

Clarence Thomas
Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court

When articles are written about Ayn Rand's influence, almost invariably they mention Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Mr. Greenspan was an associate and friend of Rand's during the 1960's, and credits her for his understanding of the moral case for capitalism.

Less frequently mentioned is Ayn Rand's impact on the life and thinking of Clarence Thomas—former chairman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), former justice on the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and now Associate Justice on the U. S. Supreme Court.

Justice Thomas is well known for a personal philosophy of self-reliant individualism, and for tenacious support of individual rights. Two recent biographies about him make clear that on both counts—and even in his private life—the influence of Ayn Rand has been substantial.

According to John Greenya's Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story (Barricade Books, 2001), "in addition to his grandfather's homilies and exhortations, Clarence had been self-nourished on an early diet of Horatio Alger and a later one of Ayn Rand," as well as the novels of Richard Wright.

Greenya quotes a 1998 interview in Neopolitique, where the jurist explained the evolution of his thinking:

…when I got to the Attorney General's office I started to read more economics, and Tom Sowell [a prominent economist] was actually the one [who moved him toward a more conservative orientation]… And over the years then I read others—[economist Friedrich] Hayek, [historian] Paul Johnson, there's a whole range of people. I've been through the Ayn Rand period. People who think intrigue me…

According to Clarence Thomas, A Biography, by Andrew Peyton Thomas (Encounter Books, 2001), this Randian period occurred during the 1980s.

Thomas found support for this 'libertarian strain'…in the writings he started to devour around this time. Ayn Rand was an intellectual who smartly promoted her ultra-libertarian philosophy through novels. Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead featured heroic, solitary characters battling big government and excessive regulations that cramped individuality and self-expression… [The Fountainhead] became one of Thomas's favorites; he would show the filmed adaptation to his EEOC staff—during the lunch hour, so as not to consume government time—as what one aide called 'a sort of training film.

By November 1987 Mr. Thomas would tell a Reason magazine interviewer that "I tend really be partial to Ayn Rand, and to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged." According to a friend quoted by Andrew Peyton Thomas: "He really thought Ayn Rand, that this was really great stuff. He was also really religious. He realized that didn't quite square."

But enough so, apparently, that Ayn Rand's novels even played an unexpected role in Clarence Thomas's private life—according to Clarence Thomas, A Biography. Upon first meeting Virginia Lamp, an official with the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas found they had much in common. "They also learned that they shared an appreciation for Ayn Rand." Virginia Lamp eventually became Mr. Thomas's wife.

His interest in Rand also had a direct impact on his career advancement. In Silent Justice, Greenya points to the pivotal role played by "friend and former of EEOC employee Clint Bolick." Mr. Bolick, who now leads the Institute for Justice—a libertarian public interest law firm in Washington, D. C.—is a committed advocate of Rand's philosophy. When the White House was reviewing federal judicial candidates, Mr. Bolick promoted Mr. Thomas's name to a White House counsel, Lee Liberman, "underscoring Thomas's devotion to the philosophy of Ayn Rand." Andrew Peyton Thomas confirms that, in conversations with Liberman, "[Clint] Bolick made special mention of Thomas's devotion to Ayn Rand."

In 1989, Liberman (who later founded the conservative Federalist Society) and chief White House counsel C. Boyden Gray recommended Mr. Thomas to former President George Bush, who in turn nominated him to the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals. This post became the final steppingstone to Mr. Thomas's eventual nomination to the U. S. Supreme Court.

As most people know, Justice Thomas faced stormy and scandalous Senate confirmation hearings. His defiant moral challenge to the committee—in which the accused reversed roles and became their accuser—is strikingly reminiscent of the approach and manner adopted by Rand's character Hank Rearden during a "kangaroo court" scene in Atlas Shrugged. Coincidence? Perhaps. But the outcomes, in both real life and in fiction, were remarkably similar.

Last year, when the Supreme Court was, in effect, called upon to decide the Presidential election, Clarence Thomas cast one of the votes that narrowly tipped the scales to George W. Bush. As we ponder the awesome implications of that election, it is astonishing that the rise of Clarence Thomas to that pivotal position was in no small measure fueled by the ideas and inspiration of Ayn Rand.

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