Of the army of right-wing cranks whose horrific ideas hold alarming sway over American politics right now, few have waited longer for their moment than Justice Clarence Thomas. Confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1991 despite credible allegations of sexual harassment against him, Thomas has spent the ensuing three-plus decades joylessly poisoning his brain with a slurry of petty grievances, culture war buzzwords, and Fox News. He is openly contemptuous of criminal defendants, incarcerated people, gay people, and anyone else whom he deems undeserving of dignity or respect—even, on occasion, members of his own family. Once relegated to the Court’s ideological fringes, Thomas’s ascendance as the conservative supermajority’s de facto thought leader means he will only have more chances to make more people’s lives worse in the years to come.
All of this makes it especially painful for me to share the following bit of information with you: Back in the day, Clarence Thomas was fucking yoked.
Most behind-the-curtain Supreme Court books include some oblique reference to Thomas’s bygone athletic prime. David Kaplan’s The Most Dangerous Branch, for example, goes out of its way to describe him as having become “heavier” since joining the Court at age 43; “you never found him working out with Kagan or Ginsburg,” Kaplan writes. A 2001 feature pegged to the tenth anniversary of Thomas’s confirmation acknowledges that his “waistline has expanded with age,” but describes the “barrel chest and powerful biceps, sculpted by regular weight lifting,” that “attest to the prowess of Thomas’s youth.”
Regrettably, these euphemistic descriptions appear to sell him way, way short. For his intramural basketball exploits in college, Thomas was nicknamed “Cooz” after Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy, according to Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson in their book Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. In seminary—Thomas spent several years studying to be a priest before dropping out to attend Holy Cross—he was voted “Class Superjock.” Another teenage acquaintance remembered Thomas as “the best athlete I ever saw.”
As an adult, Thomas was as fanatical about one-rep max day as he was about gross reactionary politics. As an official in the Reagan administration, he woke up at 4 AM every weekday to lift weights, an hour with which I am not acquainted unless something in my life has gone terribly, terribly wrong. In 1980, at 32, he ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 3:11, good for a seven-minute-and-change mile pace that has me, at 35, rubbing my knees gingerly just thinking about it. (Thomas is still listed as the fastest-ever “famous finisher” on the Marine Corps Marathon’s website.) Among his first post-confirmation tasks was settling into a lifting routine in the Supreme Court’s gym; two years later, UPI described the justice as an “avid weightlifter” who allegedly jogged for 90 minutes a day. Thomas’s preferred soundtrack while exercising, per a 1994 Washington Post report: Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.
Thomas’s pickup career came to an abrupt end in 1993, when he blew out his left Achilles tendon during his first-ever game in the Supreme Court’s attic basketball court. Although he recovered from the injury, he never quite returned to form. Months later, when Thomas posed for an end-of-the-term picture with Karl Tilleman, the former NBA fourth-round draft pick turned Supreme Court clerk who had coaxed Thomas into playing that day, Thomas asked the photographer to make sure his giant cast made it in the frame, too. “Karl, I want you to remember for the rest of your life what you did to me,” Thomas told him, a wish that should haunt the nightmares of anyone who hears Clarence Thomas utter it in any other context.
In a country where nine unelected lawyers act as a life-tenured superlegislature that gets to decide whose vote matters and whose doesn’t, I occasionally take solace in my assumption that I could wash any of these bathrobed dorks in any physical contest. The knowledge that Clarence Thomas used to be a sweatshorts-and-polo guy whose unsettlingly vascular biceps strained his sleeves like a revanchist Under Armour mannequin has shaken me to my core. It could also explain why Thomas, who has proudly never given a shit about most of the Bill of Rights, is such an enthusiastic supporter of the Second Amendment. Homophones can be tricky.