Justice Thomas offers his story — in his own words

Clarence Thomas speaks at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.
Clarence Thomas speaks at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. Randy Snyder / AP

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas can count his memoir a success of sorts even before the cash registers start singing.

In one week, Thomas' long awaited and richly compensated book hits the stores. The Oct. 1 publication of "My Grandfather's Son" coincides with the start of the high court's 2007-2008 term. It also spotlights a justice known for both controversy and public reticence.

"It's the truth," longtime Thomas friend Armstrong Williams said in an interview, "versus what people have written when they haven't even sat down to talk with him."

Many others have tried plumbing the depths of the Supreme Court's lone African-American member, ever since his incendiary 1991 Senate confirmation hearings. The Library of Congress catalog already contains at least 20 biographies, anthologies and jurisprudential analyses focused on Thomas.

Thomas isn't the only Supreme Court justice to cast his own volume onto the shelves. His former colleague Sandra Day O'Connor published a memoir, while the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist penned five books on various legal topics.

Thomas, though, has already financially outpaced the other freelance-writing justices. His reported $1.5 million advance from publisher HarperCollins — including $500,000 that Thomas collected in April 2003 — surpasses his regular $203,000 annual salary.

It also far exceeds the amount paid to his book-writing colleagues.

Rehnquist, for instance, received $48,412 for an advance on his last book in 2004, according to his financial disclosure statement. O'Connor reported receiving $12,500 in royalties in 2004 for her book "Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest."

"We feel this is going to be a big success," HarperCollins spokeswoman Tina Andreadis said of Thomas' book. "He wrote it himself. There is no ghostwriter, no 'as-told-to.'"

Bank accounts aside, friends say that Thomas profited emotionally from the process of writing the book, which spans about 300 pages and roughly the first 43 years of his life. Williams, who is hosting an Oct. 3 book party for Thomas, said the justice worked on the manuscript late at night and early in the morning.

"He was able to rediscover things that he had forgotten," Williams said.

Readers may also discover intriguing nuggets in the book, though not everyone will want to pay the $26.95 list price.

"I am a regular patron of our public library, so I will be ordering it from there," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice and a stalwart Thomas critic. "I am a reader of both fiction and non-fiction, whatever this book is."

Thomas, Williams said, shows "a lot of courage in going into the hearings" that in 1991 riveted national attention. Thomas barely won Supreme Court confirmation by a 52-48 Senate vote, after allegations by former co-worker Anita Hill that he had sexually harassed her.

At the time, Thomas famously likened the R-rated hearings to a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks," but until now he has largely left to others the task of describing exactly how the hearings unfolded. These previous accounts provide the background against which his memoir will inevitably be judged.

Thomas' manuscript, including his assessment of the confirmation hearings, has so far remained under tight wraps.

But former Republican Sen. John Danforth — Thomas' chief political patron — described Thomas in his 1994 book "Resurrection" as a "lost soul" who ended up sobbing, writhing in agony and lying in a fetal position during the hearings. Hill herself wrote a memoir, "Speaking Truth to Power," in which she lashes lawmakers and Thomas alike.

"My working relationship became even more strained when Judge Thomas began to use work situations to discuss sex," Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes."

Thomas and his Senate allies attacked Hill as a fabricator. By many accounts, the hearings seared Thomas personally and contributed to his keeping the world at bay.

Thomas' book largely stops at the Supreme Court doors, where he is known as a singularly conservative justice who rarely speaks at oral argument. Still, his former clerks have described him as a warm and engaging man, and Thomas does open up in certain circles.

Hillsdale College, for instance, is a private Michigan school that declares itself "grateful to God for the inestimable blessings resulting from the prevalence of civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety in the land." The college paid Thomas $15,000 to teach a weeklong seminar on the Constitution, financial disclosure statements show.

His publisher, HarperCollins, is part of conservative businessman Rupert Murdoch's stable and has a record of publishing the works of politicians. In 2005, a HarperCollins imprint published a 297-page memoir by Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who is now the Senate minority whip. For the book, Lott reported receiving a $106,210 advance.

The Republican lawmaker who aggressively led Thomas' defense, Sen. Arlen Specter, reported receiving $21,000 for his own book published by another HarperCollins imprint.

Thomas will do only a handful of promotional events, including a reading in New York City and, according to Legal Times, a Sept. 30 appearance on "60 Minutes." Then, he will return to the bench for the rest of his judicial career.

"He gets his life back," Williams said. "This was an obsession with him for the past two or three years."