How the Harriet Miers nomination undermined the Bush presidency
Okay, Iraq and Hurricane Katrina played a role, too. But on the occasion of Harriet Miers's resignation as White House counsel (announced Jan. 4, effective Jan. 31), I thought I'd finally voice a quirky, unprovable, and doubtless offensive-to-many intuition I've harbored ever since President Bush nominated her to become an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court on October 3, 2005.

The Miers nomination split the Republican Party, as everyone recalls, with most of the ideological conservatives--like Bill Kristol, David Frum, George Will, Kate O'Beirne, Charles Krauthammer--putting their collective foot down and taking the position that she was simply not up to the job. In my mind, that's the moment when the wheels came off the George W. Bush presidency.

The big question dogging Bush all along had always been whether he himself was up to his job. He just never seemed to be playing in the same league as other presidents. Even the greatest scoundrels of either party, like Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, had him skunked when it came to knowledge of history, government or international affairs. The notion of President Bush ever trying to mediate a Mid-East peace agreement between two cunning, powerful, antagonistic statesmen - the way Jimmy Carter did at Camp David with President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachim Begin in 1978 - was just out of the question from the get-go. However you want to articulate the reasons, we can all agree that he wasn't up to it.

Intellect is a complicated thing. It's got lots of components and every individual has a puzzling mix of strengths and deficits. So Bush wasn't necessarily "unintelligent," whatever that might mean. In any case, for an American to suggest that the president was unintelligent seemed tasteless, ad hominem and unpatriotic. (Brits and Europeans weren't as reticent.)

Still, the issue didn't go away just because people held their tongues. Over time a consensus seemed to emerge that the only thing that could appropriately be said on the subject was that Bush was unusually "lacking in curiosity." Yet it was more than that. There was also that stunted quality to his personality. The incessant macho posturing--"Bring 'em on!," "Dead or alive!"--that seemed not just reckless and dangerous, but eerily immature. He evoked one of those royals in the Europe of yore who, through the rigid workings of primogeniture, found himself King at age 11. What other president in our history would have said, "I'm the decider"? Though the sentiment has probably been universal among presidents, the preadolescent phraseology is distinctly our W's.

For a long time, the brilliant conservative ideologues who championed and defended the George W. Bush presidency professed not to know what I'm talking about. They dismissed those who broached the topic as Eastern Establishment elitists. The president was not simple, they maintained. Rather, he was possessed of "moral clarity." Moral clarity was sometimes mistaken for lack of candlepower by relativistic, secular humanists, they explained.

And that was pretty much the party line all the way up till October 3, 2005, when Bush nominated Harriet Miers to assume the pivotal seat on the U.S. Supreme Court that Sandra Day O'Connor would be vacating. Then the charade abruptly ended.

William Kristol wrote in The Weekly Standard that Bush had proposed "an unknown and undistinguished figure . . . for an opening that conservatives worked for a generation to see filled with a jurist of high distinction. There is a gaping disproportion between the stakes associated with this vacancy and the stature of the person nominated to fill it." (Emphasis mine.)

Well, exactly. And the "gaping-disproportion" line would've been a great one to describe Bush's bid for the presidency in 2000, too. Kristol had unwittingly turned Harriet Miers into a George W. Bush surrogate. The concerns that couldn't be voiced about Bush now surfaced by proxy. The great discussion was finally on, and this time the conservative intelligentsia wasn't, well, playing dumb anymore. The whole electorate could see that the right-wing pundits had really known all along, but had kept mum on a calculated bet that they could adequately supervise the boy-president and keep him on the rails.

Remember when Miers went around to meet key Senators in their offices, and several painfully admitted that while she was "decent" and "competent" . . . um ... er ...? "You've got an issue here," one Capitol Hill correspondent (for the Christian Broadcasting Network, yet) delicately put it on The Abrams Report, "where Harriet Miers has been a little, according to judiciary aides and others . . . a little slow on the uptake here in those meetings with the senators."

Soon the president's team came back at the ideological conservatives with the familiar artillery that had previously been reserved for Democrats. Bush/Miers stalwarts now mocked Kristol, Frum, Will, Krauthammer, et al., as Eastern Establishment elitists. On Howard Kurtz's Reliable Sources Frum responded: "It just shows how the White House has declined, that they can't write better talking points than that. I mean, in my day we would actually come up with an argument that worked. That's just silly." (Ah, that more gracious era, when White House speech writers concocted more plausible, specious talking points.)

Laura Bush then suggested that the anti-Miers crowd were "sexists"--much as Democratic opponents of Clarence Thomas had been tarred as "racists." But Frum candidly and brusquely dismissed the First Lady's comment for what it was: "obviously ridiculous."

It must have been a liberating, cathartic moment for the conservative intelligentsia. For even though Bush drew down Miers's nomination on October 27, 2005, the ideological right has never been able to resume its pre-Miers lock-step. As the Iraq war spiraled toward ever more undeniable fiasco, and the president's moral clarity kept preventing him from adapting to reality, the conservative pundits continued to distance themselves from their president. Eventually, so did the Republican stalwarts who had unsuccessfully backed him on the Miers nomination. Yes, he'd been incompetent in handling Iraq. Yes, he'd been incompetent in handling Katrina. Pretty soon, you had the Iraq Study Group, whose mere existence--put aside its unanimous conclusions--was an unprecedented, bipartisan statement that our president just wasn't up to the job.

Harriet Miers did all that? How can I prove it?

I can't. But that's how I experienced it. And it's my blog and I'll vent if I want to.
Posted by Roger Parloff 7:14 AM 3 Comments comment | Add a Comment

I strongly disagree with your post insofar as it argues that Pres. Bush lacks the appropriate polish to be President. No, he's not as glib as Bill Clinton. But neither is he likely to debate what the meaning of "is" is; character counts. And even on the polish criterion alone: You're championing Al Gore or John Kerry? C'mon, both of them have been caught in as many verbal miscues or brain farts as Dubya.

As a conservative blogger and one of the VERY few who vigorously defended the Miers nomination, though -- Hugh Hewitt and I were damned near alone in that -- I do agree with your central thesis. The Establishment-Right's reaction -- including from a great many people I like and respect and agree with almost all of the time -- marked a milestone in the modern conservative movement and in the Bush-43 presidency. Harriet Miers' preeminent qualification for the Supreme Court was that George W. Bush knew her and trusted her thoroughly. She was a stealth candidate to everyone but him; but then, the Constitution doesn't give my friends at NRO or the Weekly Standard to power to nominate Supreme Court Justices. The Miers nomination revealed that those folks were unwilling to trust Dubya's judgment. And yes, that did hurt -- to borrow a phrase from the Veep, "bigtime."
Posted By Bill Dyer a/k/a Beldar, Houston TX : 8:09 PM  

Gee, this is a well crafted argument to perchance convince the conservative intelligentsia that they were mistaken all along about Mr. Bush's intelligence. But why would they ever admit to such a thing? If I were in their camp, I would probably just mutter under my breath, "Yes, you are probably right. He may be an idiot, but he's OUR idiot." After all, they won two elections behind the man, so who cares if he's a little slow? He gets to fly around on Air Force One while intellectual luminaries Gore and Kerry get to remove their shoes for airport X-ray machines, just like the rest of us.
Posted By Marco Polo, Vancouver BC : 1:52 AM  

Roger,

Roger that! U said the "Unsaidable" (Bush's word for Unspeakable)
Posted By Dan, Fremont, CA : 5:51 PM  

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About this blog
This blog is about legal issues that matter to business people, and it's geared for nonlawyers and lawyers alike. Roger Parloff is Fortune magazine's senior editor (legal affairs). He practiced law for five years in Manhattan before becoming a full-time journalist. To join in the discussion or suggest topics, please email rparloff@fortunemail.com.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.