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Clarence Thomas in 2012: Time for Another 'Silent Cal' in the White House?

4 years ago
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Two bright law bloggers with evidently way too much time on their hands suggested in The Washington Post recently that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas resign his lifetime seat on the bench to run for president as a Republican in 2012. Although I first thought the piece was a spoof on Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," I now concede it may not be such a bad idea after all. Maybe the country needs a president who has the strength to relentlessly press his own mute button.

Justice Thomas has not asked a single question from the bench during oral arguments in four years. That's nearly 250 of the country's most important cases up for review over that time. He is not an incurious man and in his out-of-court speaking appearances he is gregarious and friendly, to a point. So imagine the will it has taken Thomas to remain silent and somber for so long while the weightiest issues of his profession have been discussed before his very eyes. Anyone who can stay quiet in public that long would make an excellent president, don't you think?

Clarence Thomas, Calvin CoolidgeImagine the enormous amount of money candidate Thomas would save by not airing any television or radio commercials featuring his speeches or television appearances? And without campaign spending there is no need for silly campaign finance rules like the ones Thomas helped quash earlier this year in the controversial Citizens United case. The whole Thomas campaign, in fact, could be based upon Todd Snider's brilliant and memorable song, "Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues," about a band that becomes rich and famous by not playing music. Imagine a politician who looked surly and bothered and who kept his mouth shut at all times! What a refreshing concept.

The conservative jurist's campaign -- motto: "Frugality in All Things, Especially Speech" -- would be advantaged by the comfortable and already-paid-for motor home in which Thomas and his Tea-Partying wife, Virginia, love to tour the country. No need for the expense and tumult and noise of a campaign plane! (And ever see the crowd that came out to see John Madden's bus when he was traveling the country to cover NFL games? Even the CNN politics bus draws people.) When enough people have gathered at a tour stop, Thomas could simply emerge from his coach, sit in a chair . . . and not say anything for 90 minutes, just as he has done for every oral argument at the Supreme Court since 2006. What drama such appearances would create among the faithful!

It's true that candidate Thomas would have to overcome many obstacles to become President Thomas. Though he doesn't speak during oral argument, he speaks loudly through his opinions, concurrences and dissents, which are consistently the most conservative on a very conservative court. Or rather, he speaks loudly and eloquently in support of some. As for many others, especially those involving the poor and the dispossessed and the beleaguered of this country, he remains as mute and as indifferent as he typically appears in open court.

For example, when a man named Allen Snyder asked the court for a new trial because his fellow blacks had been systematically removed from his capital case jury, Justice Thomas was silent -- and one of only two justices who refused to grant Snyder's request. When a young woman named Savanna Redding came to the court last term and asked for redress after she was strip-searched for ibuprofen, Thomas was silent toward her -- and the only justice of the nine who refused to support a young woman who been abused and humiliated.

When it came time for the court to endorse or reject the Voting Rights Act, he was silent toward the millions of black Americans who had used the legislation to vote for the first time -- and the only justice who would have voted to scrap a key provision. Surely, "Silent Clar" would have to answer (softly, quietly, perhaps on paper) for these rulings and many other ones, were he to campaign for president. Or maybe not. Maybe campaigning would mean never having to say he is sorry -- or to say anything, for that matter.

There is precedent for a president who rarely opens his mouth, and in this respect candidate Thomas' timing, as always, is perfect. The granddaddy of all presidential near-mutes was "Silent" Calvin Coolidge, who appears to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance despite being long gone, especially among new-form conservatives, who would likely form the base of "Silent Clar" support. And the campaign debates in the fall of 2012 would be priceless, right? Imagine President Obama talking and talking and candidate Thomas just standing there, silent and scowling. Thomas would gain poll points just for making each debate end more quickly.

Now let's briefly imagine the welcome silence a Thomas presidency might bring. No more prime-time speeches drowning out our weeknight reality shows. No more press conferences confronting surly reporters. Wall Street no doubt would be soothed by the lack of pronouncements from the executive branch. The terrorists who seek us out would be spooked by the stony lack of official response. The chattering class would see in Thomas' hushed governance the sort of stoic brilliance displayed by Peter Sellers in the long-ago movie "Being There."

Cue the chirping crickets; the American people would gladly substitute some peace and quiet for the eternal din of the bully pulpit, wouldn't we?

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