Players: Harriet Miers
Quiet but Ambitious White House Counsel Makes Life of Law
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Ask White House counsel Harriet Miers when she first met George W. Bush, and she is less than specific. "I met him on a variety of occasions over the course of time," she replied recently, explaining their long-ago encounters in the social and power corridors of Texas. "But not in a memorable way."
Ask her what it was like to be the first woman elected president of the Texas Bar Association, and she invokes not gender, but the geographic rivalry that frequently underlies bar elections in the state. "It was a very vigorous campaign against a lawyer from Houston," said Miers, who is from Dallas.
Ask what motivated her to seek election to the Dallas City Council in the late 1980s, she says only: "I was asked to run." Ask why she bowed out after one term, and she is only a bit more expansive. The structure of the council had changed, she explains, converting her citywide seat into one representing one district. That did not suit her interest, so she moved on. "It was a natural progression," she said.
Miers's reticence is not to be mistaken for a lack of assertiveness or ambition. Rather, friends and associates say, it reflects her scrupulous discretion and selflessness -- the same qualities that propelled her rise through the legal ranks and into President Bush's inner circle.
"The thing that comes to mind when I think of Harriet is that she basically puts her clients' interests ahead of everything, including her own personal life, sleeping hours and all those things," said Jerry Clements, a partner at Locke Liddell & Sapp, the 400-lawyer Texas firm where Miers was a co-managing partner before coming to Washington. "She is defined by hard work, dedication and client loyalty."
Miers's low-key but high-precision style is particularly valued in a White House where discipline in publicly articulating policy and loyalty to the president are highly valued. Formerly Bush's personal lawyer in Texas, Miers came with him to the White House in 2001 as staff secretary, the person who screens all the documents that cross the president's desk. She was promoted to deputy chief of staff before Bush named her counsel after his reelection in November. She replaced Alberto R. Gonzales, another longtime Bush confidant, who was elevated to attorney general.
"Harriet Miers is a trusted adviser on whom I have long relied for straightforward advice," Bush said at the time. "Harriet has the keen judgment and discerning intellect necessary to be an outstanding counsel."
When he was governor of Texas, Bush offered a less formal assessment at an awards ceremony, calling Miers "a pit bull in size 6 shoes." The line stuck, in no small part because it described her cool but dogged determination.
As White House counsel, Miers describes herself as lawyer to the presidency and the president. It is a job that has an impact on almost every major decision made in the White House, although most of the work is performed in the shadows -- at least until controversy erupts. Gonzales faced sharp questioning at his confirmation hearing for attorney general about his role in shaping policies that some critics said led to the torture and abuse of detainees at U.S. military facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Working with her staff of 13 lawyers, and in cooperation with the Justice Department, Miers's office provides guidance on issues from the legal parameters for the war on terrorism to presidential speeches. Her office also takes the lead in vetting and recommending candidates for the federal judiciary, all the way up to the Supreme Court.
With Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist suffering from thyroid cancer and widely expected to step down after the court term ends this month, it is the counsel's office that has taken the lead in evaluating prospective replacements. The work started just after Bush took office in 2001, when lawyers in the office began compiling court opinions, law review articles, speeches and other works of prospective judges so the office would be ready to make recommendations should an opening occur on the high court.
That work has taken on new urgency with Rehnquist's weakened condition -- something Miers does not care to discuss.