Political Hay

In Defense of Harriet Miers

A qualified case for appreciating the former White House counsel.

By 1.8.07

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It was an unsentimental farewell that greeted Harriet Miers' resignation last week as White House counsel. Conservatives, still sore over what they consider her undeserved nomination to the Supreme Court, were positively giddy at her departure. Likewise, the Left, which had sneeringly regarded Miers as a Bush administration loyalist -- and hence implicated in its perceived misdeeds -- found nothing to say in her favor.

How justified is this bipartisan disdain? Certainly much of the criticism that Miers faced -- especially concerning her qualifications for the country's highest court -- has been legitimate. Evidence of her experience in constitutional law was conspicuous by its absence; it was only fair to ask whether her nomination by the president owed more to personal affection than any record of legal accomplishment.

Still, it was hard to avoid the suspicion that had Miers only taken more outspoken positions on certain politically fraught issues -- abortion comes to mind -- she may well have survived the partisan furies that dogged her abortive nomination. President Bush, after all, was hardly a seasoned statesman during the 2000 election, and it made for a curious spectacle to see those who, like former White House speechwriter David Frum, had championed as compensatory virtues the president's personal charms and his intuitive political insight suddenly waxing indignant over Miers' dearth of exhibited achievement.

More bizarre yet was the deluge of ad hominem abuse that poured down on Miers. On blogs of every political stripe, on the pages of the New Republic and National Review, on talk radio and cable television, Miers was ridiculed as an unthinking flunky, a sycophant of the first order, and a judicial incompetent who couldn't be trusted to comprehend the Constitution if her life depended on it.

Experts on Miers' allegedly undistinguished career sprouted overnight. "A complete mediocrity," sniffed Ann Coulter, and found agreement among the same liberal elites she so gleefully diabolizes in her books. George Will chimed in that President Bush had abandoned all "standards of seriousness" in selecting Miers. Popular prejudice held that if the nomination weren't "disturbed" it was at minimum "a pure embarrassment." Seldom has a public official suffered so much scorn for something she had not done.

To which Miers offered an unusual response: nothing. Rather than answer her detractors, Miers bore the criticism -- and the indignity that comes with being universally pilloried. Although a pioneer of sorts in the legal world -- Miers was the first woman president of the Dallas Bar Association; the first woman president of the Texas bar; and the first woman president of her law firm -- she never indulged the temptation, all too common the era of identity politics, to tout her gender as if it were proof of her qualifications. (President Bush and some Republican Senators, less honorably, tried to justify her embattled nomination under the noisome rubric of "diversity.") Forced at last to withdraw her nomination, Miers discreetly noted that "my lengthy career provides sufficient evidence for consideration of my nomination," then humbly stepped aside.

None of this is to suggest that she should have stayed to fight for the nomination. In retrospect, it seems clear that Samuel Alito was the far more qualified candidate, explaining why liberal interest groups chose to focus instead on his record judicial conservative. Nor is Miers' resignation as counsel necessarily to be regretted. Judicial selection will be more difficult under a Democratic Congress and it's far from certain that Miers, notwithstanding her designation by the president as "a pit bull in size 6 shoes," has the political muscle to wage the coming battles over nominees.

But give Miers her due. In her willingness to play the proverbial good soldier, to suffer her critics in quiet dignity, Miers showed a commendable respect for the obligations of her office. If she was too loyal to the president, she was also a refreshing departure from that other brand of political operative, the shadowy schemers who register their policy disagreements with damaging leaks. By the same token, it's impossible to imagine Miers lending her name to the political hatchet jobs that have become the perennial right of disaffected officialdom.

Like the withdrawal of her nomination, Miers' exit from the White House may well be a victory for the conservative cause. But it's hard not think that, on some small level, it is also a loss to the culture of political civility and the ideal of public service.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.