In early April, when ProPublica revealed Clarence Thomas’s repertoire of undisclosed luxury trips paid for by the Dallas billionaire and GOP mega-donor Harlan Crow, it ignited a fresh firestorm of controversy involving a perennially controversial titan of American jurisprudence. Further reporting from the nonprofit investigative journalism outlet revealed that Crow had bought property from Thomas and footed private school tuition for the grandnephew whom Thomas had raised. As if these ethical imbroglios weren’t enough, The Washington Post added to the ripening whiffs of scandal around Thomas’s wife, Ginni Thomas (already under fire for her proximity to January 6 and Stop the Steal), reporting that a conservative judicial activist had “arranged” for Ginni Thomas “to be paid tens of thousands of dollars for consulting work just over a decade ago, specifying that her name be left off billing paperwork.”
These various exposés have spawned an entire Clarence Thomas news cycle, as the veteran justice faces increased congressional scrutiny and almost certainly futile calls to resign, all while the Supreme Court is expected to soon rule on closely watched cases addressing affirmative action, voting, LGBTQ+ rights, and the fate of US elections. Even for Thomas, whose confirmation almost 32 years ago was nearly derailed following Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment, it’s been an especially tumultuous period in the spotlight.
It’s also perfect timing for Joel Anderson, host of Becoming Justice Thomas, the eighth season of Slate’s popular Slow Burn podcast, which premiered on Wednesday. Last year, Anderson set out to trace Thomas’s “surprising path from youthful radical to conservative icon” with a deeply researched and reported narrative audio series. He didn’t know just how timely his project would turn out to be. We talk about that and all things Clarence Thomas—a man, according to Anderson, who “looks at so many people in America as people that are out to get him”—in the condensed and edited conversation that follows.
Vanity Fair: Let’s start with the opening scene of the podcast, where you knock on the door of his 94-year-old mom’s house in Savannah, Georgia. When was that?
Joel Anderson: I remember the exact date. It was April 1st. I flew into Savannah on March 31st, and we had thought, Maybe we’ll get Clarence Thomas’s sister. In The Washington Post in 1980, he disparaged her for accepting welfare, and so we really wanted to talk with her about that relationship. That was our main priority. And we’re like, Well, you know, maybe his mother will be there. We don’t know. But the basis of the trip was, we were gonna talk to friends and former classmates. So that morning, April 1st, I talked with Lester Johnson, who is a friend of Clarence Thomas’s, and then Lester says at the end of the interview, “Well, I’m getting ready to go to the mosque today for Ramadan and I might stop by and see Clarence’s mother.” And I’m like, Hmmm, okay, just kind of taking a mental note. I just looked up where the mosque was in town, cross-referenced it with addresses that were associated with the Thomas family, and then knocked on the door.
Remarkably, this happened just a few days before the latest burst of scandalous headlines. You showed up unannounced at his childhood home being like,*__ __*I’m a reporter doing a big documentary project on your son. Was their any negotiating that happened off-mic, or did she just start opening up?
You basically hear how it all went down. She welcomes me in and we just start talking. In fact, I think I gave her a couple of opportunities to back out, just in case she wasn’t comfortable. For whatever reason, when I walked in, she didn’t have any sort of reservation. If I had to guess, I can’t imagine there’s a lot of people that have ever knocked on her door quite that way.
And you didn’t know that you were talking to her in a house purchased by Harlan Crow in 2014, as the world would learn two weeks later. Which is to say, the news cycle must have warranted some adjustments in the storytelling.
We had to make some accommodations for the revelations, like about the house. In that way, it really worked out for us.
Because you’d decided to do a Clarence Thomas season last year not knowing there’d be a whole new wave of controversy.
The initial timing was, this summer, the Supreme Court is supposed to make some rulings on a couple of affirmative action cases, which, if you look at the makeup of the Court, you know affirmative action in America probably won’t exist in quite the way that it did over the last 50 years. So we were hoping to time it to that ruling. Everything else that happened—his name was put into the news in a way that we just could not have expected.
Give me a sense of the research and reporting that went into this.
We had to read and watch everything, within reason, that’s out there about him. We read a lot of great books. Supreme Discomfort by Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher. The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin. Clarence Thomas’s own autobiography, which in and of itself is really interesting, revelatory in a lot of different ways. And then you start reaching out to people. We probably reached out to, I dunno, 50, 75 people, and ended up with probably 30 recorded interviews. The centerpiece of the reporting was the trip to Savannah, which was three or four days. All day long I’m knocking on doors talking to people.
What are some of the most revelatory things to come out of your interviews?
I mean, obviously we talked to his mother. We were able to talk to one of his best friends from seminary, and I think that’s one of the things that maybe people sort of vaguely knew about Clarence Thomas, but didn’t know how much being a Catholic priest was a part of his early ambition. So we talked to somebody that went to school with him there—what he was like, the sort of things that he was into, how committed he was to the priesthood. We talked to one of his close friends in college, Eddie Jenkins, who also is the guy that introduced Clarence Thomas to his first wife. We talked to his mentor, Senator John Danforth. That’s the guy who hired him out of Yale Law School, and he not only talks about how Clarence dealt with, you know, working in an all-white office in Missouri when he was the attorney general, but also how he dealt with the Anita Hill accusations. Like, John Danforth was there with him right before he goes out and says the “high-tech lynching” thing. We also had Lillian McEwen, the woman he dated between his first wife and Ginni Thomas. The tape that we leave on the cutting floor there—I’m trying to think of how I wanna say this. I mean it was…
It’s very spicy. She wrote a memoir about her relationship with Clarence Thomas, and if you Google her, the prurient stuff is like, we went to sex clubs, we had threesomes. But she also just had some real up-close insights into who he was as a person and how he treated other people; what he thought about Black people and what he thought about the white Republicans that were grooming him to someday replace Thurgood Marshall. She’s there for a lot of that part of the journey. But every time she opened her mouth, I was like, Oh, my God. And then we also talked to other Black conservatives that are friends with him.
Did you have to do any arm-twisting with his allies, considering this clearly wasn’t going to be, like, a glowing portrait?
That was tough. We had to convince a lot of people. I actually had known Armstrong Williams, who worked with Clarence Thomas. He’s a longtime conservative commentator. I wrote a profile about Ben Carson running for president in 2015. Armstrong Williams called me after the piece ran and he’s like, you were really fair. And so I reached out to him when I knew we were gonna do this and he was down to do it. He agreed to talk with me immediately, and I think that made things a little easier.
Because it opened up doors to other people?
Yeah. The important thing was just telling them, look, whatever you think of Slate, like, if you think it’s a liberal publication or whatever, I’m coming to you with my credibility as a reporter. I’ve reported on Republicans before, written stories about them. I’m asking you to believe whether or not I can be fair, and I believe I can be fair.
What about your dealings with—I don’t know what I’d call it—the official Clarence Thomas camp?
It was sending them an interview request and them saying no. They turned this down very politely and very swiftly. I knew that was gonna happen. Like, it never occurred to me that Thomas would talk to us.
Did you get any inklings of his awareness of the project from talking to other people around him?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, his friend from the seminary wouldn’t talk to us unless he got permission from Justice Thomas. My belief is that anybody close to Clarence Thomas knows they’ve gotta get permission first if they’re gonna talk about him.
Who did you try to talk to that *__wouldn’t __*participate?
I’ll just say this. You’ll hear from Anita Hill, but only an archival recording. That’s somebody we really wanted. Angela Wright is a person I still hope to get. Maybe she’ll change her mind. Angela Wright worked with Clarence Thomas at the EEOC ( Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and was prepared to testify during his second set of confirmation hearings after the Anita Hill accusations. She turned me down in a really funny way. She was just like, I’m not interested in podcasts.
Like, she doesn’t slum it with podcasts? She only talks for fancy books or whatever?
She was in the Frontline documentary. But yeah, she was just like, I’m not interested in it as a medium. I’ve never been rejected like that before! I mean, obviously we got rejected by a lot of people who just didn’t want to get involved. These are people that, understandably, are concerned with the climate out there politically and culturally. That, if you say something negative, right-wingers or whatever are gonna come after you. We heard that quite a bit.
Of all that’s come out about Thomas in the past year or two, what do you find most alarming? Is it his wife being an election-overturner? Is it something in particular from the dicey ethics stuff with Harlan Crow?
The thing that is alarming to me is just the idea that people are unaccountable. That people are basically beyond the law in a lot of ways. I mean, if you’re looking at the ethics stuff, the trips he’s taken, the tuition he has accepted, allowing Harlan Crow to buy your mom’s house—maybe I’m be naive, but if you go back 30, 40 years, I don’t even think you would have to ask for somebody to resign. They would just do it. And so there’s sort of a belief here that they are beyond the law, beyond accountability to the American people. That is worrisome.
Anda you know, I’ve read Clarence Thomas’s autobiography, as I said earlier. It was really, really good. But he talks about enemies a lot. Enemies, critics. Like, if there aren’t any enemies there, he’ll create them. It’s just really worrisome that he looks at so many people in America as people that are out to get him, and I think that anger and that resentment is what is driving a lot of his jurisprudence over the last few years, and the way that he’s conducted himself. I’m not saying that he’s trying to get revenge on people. But he’s very much a man who feels that he’s under siege. I think the confirmation hearing from 1991 wounded him deeply, and ever since, he’s had time for those wounds to callus, and now he’s fighting back. That’s the sort of thing that is really scary.
To your point about accountability, or the lack of accountability: In the end, do you think any of this stuff that has come to light matters? I mean it’s not like he’s gonna resign.
Maybe somebody can show me something or tell me something that will make me feel that we’re gonna pull back from the brink here, and that we’re not gonna become some sort of autocratic nation or whatever. But I mean, there’s nothing to hold people accountable. If people refuse to resign, you know, like Donald Trump, if he’s going to be indicted and lose all these cases or whatever and still run for president, it’s just like, Okay, well, this is sort of where we’re at now.
Yeah. Clarence Thomas is gonna die on that bench.
Oh, my God, of course. He would never give his quote, unquote enemies the satisfaction of resigning. I don’t think he has any respect for the people that criticize him. He already feels like he died during the confirmation hearings in 1991. People around him say that over and over again, that it was a sort of death, a spiritual death. So he’s been reborn, and why would he ever put himself through that again? Why would he ever give people the satisfaction? So yeah, he’s gonna die on the bench.
You say in the opening of the first episode, “Both of us grew up in the South and went to Catholic schools. Both of us felt drawn to the fiery rhetoric of Black nationalism. And both of us had white folks tell us that we were affirmative action cases. At some point, the two of us started to see the world differently, and I’ve always wanted to figure out why.” Do you feel like you got an answer to that question?
I do. There’s a way in which, as a Black person in this country, you can just get really cynical about the treatment that we face. A lot of people are just like, Okay, I want to fight against this. I want to improve the lot of my people. I want us to get a foothold into this multiracial democracy. I don’t believe Clarence Thomas believes in that, and there are a lot of people that have studied him that feel the same—that he doesn’t see any value in the American project in that way, that he doesn’t necessarily believe integration or desegregation is a thing to be desired. He’s just like, Well, we’re all gonna be on our own, we’re all gonna have to figure it out for ourselves, and I don’t believe that. I believe that for any of us to have peace, for any of us to thrive in this country, we’re gonna have to figure it out together, even with people we don’t get along with. He turned away from that.