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Sonia Sotomayor Has a "Compelling Life Story" - But Clarence Thomas Didn't?

Double standards in the treatment of two Supreme Court nominees, one conservative, the other liberal, who rose from hardship.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor and Judge Clarence Thomas both had compelling life stories when they were nominated for the Supreme Court. But only Sotomayor's story has been celebrated that way by the Times.



Sotomayor's rise from a housing project in the East Bronx to Supreme Court nominee was "a compelling life story" in Thursday's lead article by Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney.



And Scott Shane and Manny Fernandez even celebrated the life history of Sotomayor's mother, in Thursday's "A Judge's Own Story Highlights Her Mother's - A Tale of Rising Out of Hardship." The Times argued that Celina Sotomayor's story was "as compelling in its own right" as that of her daughter.



And Sheryl Gay Stolberg's gushing 5,000-word "Woman in the News" profile of Sotomayor Wednesday positioned the judge's rise as "Her up-by-the-bootstraps tale, an only-in-America story...."



By contrast, the lead July 2, 1991 story by Maureen Dowd, then a White House reporter, was rather curt when it came to extolling the conservative Thomas's riveting life history. Dowd dispensed with Thomas's inspiring rise from poverty in Pin Point, Ga., where he was raised by his grandparents, in two and a half paragraphs and suggesteda cynical political motivation on the part of President George H.W. Bush. Thomas's life wasn't inspiring, but was merely "offered as inspiring" by the president:



The President and Judge Thomas struck the theme that the White House hopes will negate the inevitable criticism by civil rights groups about the nominee's dismissal of affirmative action as "social engineering." Mr. Thomas's life was offered as inspiring proof that minority members can pull themselves up from rough beginnings without special favors.


A personality-driven "Man in the News" profile on Thomas by Neil Lewis ran that same day, "From Poverty to the Bench." At 1,400 words, it was substantially shorter than the 5,000-word behemoth Stolberg graced Sotomayor with on Wednesday, and was light on Thomas's inspiring personal history, which was limited to six paragraphs. Lewis's opener even suggested Thomas was pushing his past hardships for personal reasons:



Judge Clarence Thomas, President Bush's choice to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, has always been quick to tell his friends and colleagues about the grinding poverty into which he was born in coastal Georgia.


His father abandoned the family to go north when Judge Thomas was 7 years old, and his harried mother sent him to live with his grandparents in Savannah, the first time he lived in a house with a toilet. His success, he has told friends, was due to his grandfather's insistence that he go to school and work hard.


And in an interesting sidelight uncovered on the Drudge Report, Lewis dismissed as ridiculous back in 1998 an idea from radio host Rush Limbaugh that Sotomayor was being groomed by Democrats (in this case, the Clinton administration) for the high court. Even the headline was prescient: "The G.O.P., Its Eyes on High Court, Blocks a Judge."



It also remains unclear how some Senate Republicans came to believe that Judge Sotomayor was being considered as a candidate for the Supreme Court. Hispanic bar groups have for years pressed the Clinton Administration to name the first Hispanic justice, but White House officials said they are not committed to doing so. The Hispanic National Bar Association has submitted a list of six candidates for the Supreme Court to the White House. But Martin R. Castro, a Chicago lawyer and official of the group, said Judge Sotomayor's name is not on the list.


On Sept. 30, the day of her confirmation hearing, Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk show host, warned the Senate that Judge Sotomayor was an ultraliberal who was on a ''rocket ship'' to the Supreme Court. That day, Judge Sotomayor was questioned closely by Republicans.



Lewis was onto Sotomayor's "appealing story" even back in 1998, opening his article:



Hers was an appealing story: a child from the Bronx housing projects who went on to graduate summa cum laude from Princeton and become editor of the Yale Law Journal and then a Federal prosecutor.



Conservative Thomas's story was evidently not as "appealing" to Lewis.