The Real Harriet Miers

The spinmeisters on the right and left are busily deconstructing Bush's choice for the high court. But she could defy everyone's assumptions

By Richard S. Dunham

President Bush thinks he knows what to expect from Harriet Miers, the woman he chose on Oct. 3 to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. "I know her heart. I know her character," the President declared as he nominated his White House counsel for the highest court in the land.

Vice-President Dick Cheney thinks he knows, too -- at least, that's what he told conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh hours later. "You'll be proud of Harriet's record, Rush," the VP insisted during a broadcast. "Trust me."

Lawyers, political activists, and court watchers of all political stripes, however, might want to remember Ronald Reagan's famous remark about the Soviet Union: "Trust -- but verify."


  In truth, history is full of preconceived notions of how Supreme Court nominees would come down on important cases -- only to see the nominees surprise and confound the conventional wisdom once they ascended to the court. With Miers, the President picked a Supreme Court nominee with a paper trail written in invisible ink. Indeed, verifying her positions on key legal issues could be as challenging as finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Supreme Court nominees often become caricatures, as political operatives create cartoonish, often artificial, portrayals of them -- negative and positive -- for their own ideological motives. Here are a few of the instant legends created by partisans to describe Harriet Miers -- 60-year-old Dallas lawyer, Presidential confidante, and Bush ultraloyalist. First the spin, then the reality:

The spin (from liberals): She's another political crony of President Bush being elevated because of blind loyalty rather than competence.

The reality: Miers is, without doubt, one of the most loyal of Bush's inner circle, and she was the President's personal lawyer. "She is totally dedicated [to the President]," says Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.). But she's no Michael Brown, the longtime buddy of Joe Allbaugh, the ex-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brown worked for the Arabian Horse Assn. before coming to FEMA and ultimately succeeding Allbaugh as its head.

Miers was the first woman to serve as president of the Dallas Bar Assn. and the State Bar of Texas, and she was the first woman to head a major Texas law firm. She has been White House counsel and deputy chief of staff. A loyalist, yes. But a crony? She is certainly a qualified choice.

The spin (from conservatives): She's not a true-blue conservative. In 1988, she contributed to then-Presidential candidate Al Gore, Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, and the Democratic National Committee. And unlike several other candidates on the short list -- such as federal appellate judges Edith Jones and Michael Luttig, she's not on record as opposing abortion rights.

The reality: Yes, Miers donated to a couple of Dems in '88, but the Al Gore of that campaign was quite different from the antiwar liberal of 2005. In 1988, Gore was considered by many of the Texas Tory Democrats to be the conservative alternative to Michael Dukakis. Bentsen, a popular incumbent, was considered moderate to conservative by many Texas voters. One Dallas Democratic operative theorizes that Miers made her donations after a leading local businessman lobbied partners at her law firm to help out a couple of Dems considered to be right of center.

On the abortion issue, it's impossible to know her position. Some Texas pols guess that she is pro-choice, like her good friend Senator Hutchison, while others insist she is pro-life. Supporters point out that she is a devout fundamentalist Protestant and volunteers for a Christian ministry. The group Texans for Life revealed on Oct. 3 that Miers gave $150 to the organization -- then known as Texans United for Life -- in 1989. At its annual dinner, featuring a keynote address by anti-abortion leader Henry Hyde, Miers was listed in the program as a bronze sponsor, the group said.

The truth? Usually, you put your mouth where your money is. But we'll know for sure when Justice Miers casts her first Supreme Court vote if she is confirmed.

The spin (from liberals): As the first woman Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor was a true groundbreaker. Harriet Miers isn't in her league.

The reality: Texas wasn't a friendly place for ambitious young female lawyers when Miers graduated from Southern Methodist University law school in the early '70s. "She became a leader in a field where there were no women because she had an inner toughness, and people instinctively trusted her," says Senator Hutchison, an SMU contemporary who chose television news rather than face the same struggles.

It's true that O'Connor -- a generation older than Miers -- faced even more hostility and closed doors. But the good-'ol-boy network still ruled in Texas law firms until Miers helped to shatter the glass ceilings that had limited women's opportunities.

The spin (from Democrats): Miers' record in public office is spotty. Her career as a member of the Dallas city council was undistinguished, and her tenure chairing the Texas Lottery Commission was highly controversial.

The reality: Miers joined the Dallas city council in 1989, at a time when the city's African-American community was pushing for greater representation after decades of segregation and voting-rights violations. Miers was recruited by the Dallas business community to run for the city council as a voice of moderation and conciliation. She attempted to broker a compromise between the defenders of the status quo and the African-American politicians who were demanding all single-member districts to maximize black representation. In the end, despite her efforts, Miers couldn't pull it off and retired from the council after a single term -- with both sides sniping at her.

Four years later, then-Governor George W. Bush named Miers, his personal lawyer, to chair the Texas Lottery Commission, which was awash in scandal. She quickly made personnel moves that were hailed by Bush, who said she had cleaned up the place. But her actions placed her in the vortex of legal disputes and political warfare. Critics questioned both her competence and her motives. But the bottom line: The lottery commission ran more smoothly, without scandal, after her tenure.

The spin (from the far left): Miers is part of a conspiracy to cover up George Bush's role in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, and may be implicated in destruction of documents.

The reality: Miers was assigned to do "opposition research" on Bush before he announced his candidacy for the White House. So she probably knows more about his National Guard activities than any person other than the President. But there's no evidence of any wrongdoing by Miers. This looks like overheated rhetoric.

The spin (from the right): Bush's low job-approval ratings have forced him to pick a mushy moderate rather than a proud conservative activist. As Limbaugh told his viewers on Oct. 3, conservatives are "frankly, a little worn out having to appease the left on all of these choices."

The reality: The President isn't one to shy away from a fight, and he doesn't much care about the latest polls. The most important factor for Bush, say those close to him, is to pick a nominee he feels comfortable with.

"To the rest of the country, [Miers] is a new David Souter," says one Bush friend from Dallas. "But the President knows everything about her. She's the perfect choice for George Bush."

That may be true. If Miers is confirmed, she most certainly won't be the "perfect choice" for the other half of the country, however. The interesting question, really, is which half that will be.

Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington Outlook editor

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