NYTimes on Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow

When NYTimes reporter Mike McIntire emailed me a couple of weeks ago saying that he wanted to get my thoughts on the friendship between Harlan Crow and Clarence Thomas, I told him I didn’t know anything about it — and I don’t, except for what McIntire wrote yesterday. McIntire contacted me because of a post I put up during the convention hotel fight entitled “Who is Harlan Crow and Why Are People Saying All Those Mean Things About Him?”

McIntire did a good job, I think, and it was worth reporting on, because the friendship is unusual. He may have stretched his case a little in trying to find an ethical lapse by noting that Crow entities have had four cases before an appellate court and that AEI, of which Crow is a board member, gave Thomas an award worth $15,000. I call those a stretch because there’s not a business in America, including this one, that hasn’t been before one of the lower appellate courts, and because board members have as little to do with making awards at think tanks like AEI as summer interns. Still, it was a piece that needed to be written, and McIntire seems to have covered all the bases.

It’s the reaction that interests me.

The liberal blogosphere — predictably — has gone berserk. Ian Millhiser at Think Progress thinks Thomas is another Abe Fortas and, like Fortas, ought to resign. Part of the reaction is understandable. If the shoe were on the other foot, if Justice Stepehen Breyer had been caught paling around with George Soros, the right-wing blogosphere would be shouting to high heaven.

But the comparison to Fortas in inapt, which is probably why McIntire didn’t raise it himself. Fortas was known as a greedy lawyer before LBJ appointed him to the Court and before he took a $20,000 gift ($123,000 in today’s dollars) from swindler Harold Wolfson. The appointment as Chief Justice  itself was seen as a payoff: LBJ biographer Robert Caro identified Fortas as the key strategist in stealing the 1948 Senate election for Johnson. (When the Wolfson gift became public, the calls for Fortas’s resgination were led by Sen. Walter Mondale.)

If there is anything that bothers me in the points McIntire raises, it is Ginny Thomas’s political fundraising. Last year I wrote a column entitled “How to Bribe a Politician: Pay the Spouse.” Half of Washington knows this trick. Tom DeLay pioneered it when he started a foundation, told big donors to give money to it, and put his wife and daughter on its payroll.  Others like Newt Gingrich soon followed suit. It may now be seem as standard operating procedure by DC types, but it is a sleazy maneuver, and at the very least public officials should be subject to full disclosure of their entire household income.

If you share my misgivings on that score, it still doesn’t come close to making Clarence Thomas an Abe Fortas. Nor does Harlan Crow’s financing of a museum in Thomas’s hometown. As McIntire makes clear, there is no suggestion that Crow has ever given money directly to Thomas or that he has ever solicited anything from him.

The NYTimes, in fact, has done both men a favor. By bringing their friendship to the light of day and examining it from every possible external angle, it has cleared the air of suspicion. What I would love to learn is the internal story, how the friendship between the son of a sharecropper and the son of one of the nation’s richest men came about. Maybe someday both men will open up to a biographer who can tell that story. That’s the one I would love to read.

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