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Oldie, 6/6/09: You can't pigeonhole what's personal

I suspect I'm not alone in keeping a running list of potential book titles in my head. One of those, which perhaps one day I'll actually write and publish, is called It's Always Personal.There's no such thing as "wholly objective" politics or ideology. The convictions that often turn into far-reaching public policy come from the personal experiences of one individual, who perchance connects with others who share similar experiences. When these people and their common bond find themselves in "the right place at the right time," you can end up with new paths in history.

My little thesis gets a boost from this article in the New York Times, comparing Supreme Court aspirant Sonia Sotomayor with the sitting 18-year veteran Clarence Thomas. Two minority Catholics, not too far apart in age, whose worldviews are at distant poles.

So what's personal? Experience and temperament.


Mr. Thomas learned he could rely only on himself. His father left when he was a toddler. A few years later, his mother sent him to live with his grandparents, dumping his possessions in grocery bags and sending him out the front door, he wrote in his autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son.”

Ms. Sotomayor also grew up without a father; hers died of heart problems when she was 9. But her mother was a sustaining force, supporting the family by working as a nurse. In a recent speech, Judge Sotomayor recalled her mother and grandmother chatting and chopping ingredients for dinner. “I can’t describe to you the warmth of that moment for a child,” she said. 


And what if these two histories were reversed? Isolate little Sonia from nurturing family connections, and put young Clarence in a warmer, more close-knit and positive-thinking family, and what would you get?

We'll obviously never know. I suspect that with such an upbringing, Sotomayor would still have carved a niche for herself, still identifying with the underdog and championing their rights -- if not at Princeton, then perhaps among less prestigious, more subversive company. And Mr. Thomas may have gained the confidence to push forward and join those elite "insiders" who so intimidated and frustrated him at Yale, rather than hanging back and feeling permanently isolated from everything he really wanted.

It is as pointless to speculate about something that will never be, as it is to dismiss such factors and expect any individual to "put aside" their personal experience when called to the bench. Neither Sotomayor nor Thomas wears blinders that render them incapable of seeing the other side of an argument. Both are highly intelligent and idealistic.

In the final analysis, both are human. No one can expect anything more or less.

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