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The Trouble with Harriet

The president's ill-conceived Supreme Court appointment has exposed disturbing flaws in his administration.

9:15 AM, Oct 14, 2005 • By GERARD BAKER
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THERE HAS BEEN some rather harsh treatment in the media of George W. Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers. It has been said that she is an underqualified crony of Bush's, and that as a middling corporate lawyer, with no experience on the bench, she has never offered much in the way of opinions.

This is grossly unfair. According to a stack of documents released this week by the State of Texas, Miers has delivered some thundering dictums in her various legal and paralegal roles as partner in a Dallas law firm and later chairman of the Texas State Lottery Commission.

"You are the best Governor ever, deserving of great respect," she wrote on an "I'm Sorry I Missed Your Birthday" card to Governor George W. Bush in 1997.

"Hopefully Jenna and Barbara recognize that their parents are cool as do the rest of us," she opined in a thank-you note to the governor a year later, a letter she concluded with: "Keep up all the great work. Texas is blessed!"

It's cheap, I know, to make fun of sycophancy in pursuit of power. Who among us would not wince a bit if all our correspondence over the years to powerful friends were laid bare for the public gaze? How many of you, even now, are trying to delete that email you sent somewhere that reads: "You are the best regional deputy assistant manager ever! Runcorn is blessed!"?

Cronyism is, after all, an established principle in human life. In politics, it's not overdoing it to say that promoting and rewarding one's friends is probably the single most important factor in almost all big appointments; having people around you whom you can trust is not to be underestimated in the treacherous waters of statecraft.

Nobody has gone quite as far as Caligula in reaching into the ranks of his equine favorites to fill important positions. But was there really no better qualified candidate in 1961 to be attorney general than Robert F. Kennedy? Was Hillary Clinton appointed to head the presidential review of healthcare policy in 1993 because of her unique grasp of the subject and her political skills? Did Tony Blair look far beyond the walls of his own chambers when selecting either his first or second candidates for lord chancellor?

And yet, the trouble with Harriet is much larger than any of this. It is not just that she is so obviously unfit to hold the office of associate justice of the Supreme Court, though she is certainly that. It is the simple, depressing lack of seriousness demonstrated by the White House in coming up with such a candidate, the sheer cramped and occluded smallness of the thinking that now seems to characterize the Bush administration's approach to governing.

It is hard to overstate the mood of demoralization among conservatives in America. The rising tide of disillusionment is ready to break the dam of loyalty.

The grisly ineptitude of the conduct of U.S. policy in Iraq has been forgivable--just--because the cause was right and the vision, a democratic Middle East that shakes off centuries of despotic decay, remains an inspiring one. The cavalier attitude towards the public finances reflected a disturbing callowness but could still be tolerated as a messy outcome of awkward political realities. In both cases, soaring idealism in concept has been undermined by woeful execution.

The trouble with Harriet is that it's the conception that's all wrong. For decades conservatives in America have had to put up with a judiciary that clings obstinately to the verities of New Deal and Great Society liberalism; activist, interventionist judges repeatedly "finding" new constitutional rights that fit with their own political outlook. At last, President Bush had an opportunity to reverse that. Three months ago, he picked John Roberts to be first an associate of the nine member court, and then chief justice. It is hard to think of someone who better personifies the conservative's ideal of what a judge should be--brilliant, experienced, humble, wedded to the juridical principles of limited government.

And then along comes Miers to fill the spot on the Court that could prove to be the pivotal one, the position that could change the direction of American jurisprudence for decades. We don't know much about Miers's views on the Constitution--that in itself is not a good sign, though she might, admittedly, turn out to toe the Roberts line admirably. But we know a lot about what the White House was thinking in proposing her.

First, she is a woman, probably necessary to fill the position left by Sandra Day O'Connor. But there were many far better qualified female candidates for the Court than the White House counsel, so why Miers?