When Ginni Thomas rails against Washington elites, does it include her husband?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Oct. 9 2010 1:34 PM

The Battle Cry of a Supreme Court Wife

When Ginni Thomas rails against Washington elites, does it include her husband?

Ginni Thomas. Click image to expand.
Ginni Thomas

RICHMOND, Va.—Of all the disclosures in the fascinating new biography of Justice William Brennan by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel, one of the most powerful is this: The worst job in the entire history of the world has to be Supreme Court wife.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Stern and Wermiel paint a searing picture of an alcoholic Marjorie Brennan, who evidently spent years both drinking and dying at the same time. Or worse, Justice Felix Frankfurter's "desperately unhappy and incapacitated wife, Marion" who, "suffered from psychological problems since the 1920's and had been largely confined to her second-story bedroom since the 1940's."

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Unlike the wives of regular politicians, Supreme Court wives can't go out on the stump for their husbands. They can't defend them in the media. They can't do much more than allow the photographers in to see the window treatments and the fruit bowls. As Stern and Wermiel describe it, at the Red Mass in 1963, after the Bishop of Richmond slammed the Supreme Court for its recent school prayer decisions, Marjorie Brennan finally lost it. On leaving the church she excoriated the bishop: "You're not fit for my husband or me to kiss your ring." It seems to have been a single act of public rebellion in a lifetime of swallowed insults and attacks on her husband.

Virginia Lamp Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has learned this lesson well. As she addresses the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Convention Friday night, she wants it to be perfectly clear that nobody is going to lock her in the attic anytime soon. She's fighting for what she believes in, and for that she should get enormous credit.

But what, one wonders, might happen if she prevails?

Thomas is an extraordinarily youthful 53, as she takes the main stage in Richmond's downtown convention hall. Her hair is a honey-colored bob and her jacket is a cheerful red. She greets several hundred Virginia Tea Partiers (2,000 participants are expected, the largest such gathering ever) with "Hello Patriots!"  Thomas is charming, even girlish in her delivery. She opens with the story of the goose and the golden egg, and segues gently into a warning that "we are ruled by an elite that thinks it knows better than we know and tells us what to do."

There is very little specificity in Thomas' Tea Party indictment, which targets Washington's "political class" and their generalized "power grab" from a Washington that "doesn't believe the founders and think they know best." Perhaps Thomas can't speak in specific detail, or perhaps the idea is that there is no detail, no clear explanation of how the current elites are worse than the previous elites. Perhaps it's enough to allude to the collective certainty that "freedom has never been more fragile" and that "in my lifetime it's never been this bad." Thomas explains, to much applause, that a Tea Party member's neighbors either believe he is crazy, or a hero, that "people either see it or they don't."

She talks of "reclaiming America" and of a current government that "sees the Constitution as an impediment to having power over our lives." There is a code here, about being unable to choose one's doctors and the deceptions of the mainstream media, but Thomas seems to be speaking only in the spaces between Tea Party particulars, especially when it comes to the Supreme Court.

 Thomas serves up a much-cheered slam on the "mainstream media" which "used to pride itself on gotcha journalism, but either went to sleep or became lapdogs for the other side." That's followed with the warning that people with an "extreme point of view" have "burrowed into the media, our churches, schools and publishing houses." There is a call to reject traditional media and turn to cable television, the Internet and Liberty Central—the Website Thomas founded to empower citizens to empower themselves. Thomas warns that the "hard left is working right now to dismiss us, demoralize us, and destroy our good candidates."  She then offers eight "habits of highly effective citizen patriots" which include sprinkling more AM radio into one's media diet (she recommends Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin by name) and connecting with others and prayer. She explains that the opposition wants you "demoralized, tricked and fooled," but the answer is to focus on the fact that "ordinary people armed with truth can change the world." The crowd surges to its feet, as she tells them which incumbent Democrats to defeat in Virginia's November elections.