Quiet but Ambitious White House Counsel Makes Life of Law

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"There's no vacancy, so I don't think it is appropriate to talk about it," she said when the question of the Supreme Court vetting process arose.

The office also has played a pivotal role in recommending federal appeals court candidates to Bush. Senate Democrats blocked 10 of the president's 34 appeals court nominees during his first term, saying they were too extreme in their conservatism. That prompted Senate Republicans to threaten to change the rules to disallow filibusters of judicial candidates.

The march toward the so-called nuclear option was stopped only after a bipartisan agreement by 14 senators saved the filibuster but allowed some of Bush's most controversial nominees to win Senate confirmation. The deal provides for the filibuster to be used only under "extraordinary circumstances," while calling on the White House to consult more closely with the Senate before forwarding nominees.

But Bush has said that the White House is not part of the agreement, a view Miers echoes.

"It doesn't change what we do," said Miers, who said she routinely talks to senators about possible nominees. The candidates the president put forward, she said, "deserve an up-or-down vote."

Born and raised in Dallas, Miers, 59, is a graduate of Southern Methodist University, where she majored in mathematics. She went on to law school at SMU, earning her law degree in 1970 and going on to clerk for a federal judge in Dallas. In an era when there were few female lawyers, Miers set out for the top.

According to published reports, she was the first woman hired by Locke Purnell Boren Laney & Neely, a Dallas firm whose history extends to the 1890s. She went on to become a top commercial litigator whose clients included Microsoft and the Walt Disney Co.

Miers, who is not married and does not have children, was active in professional organizations and eventually was elected head of the Dallas and Texas bar associations, where she was known for encouraging members to do pro bono work.

If Miers encountered any gender bias along the way, she is not one to talk about it. "She is one of those people who just decides, 'I'm going to do a good job and good work and good results will win out over any biases people may have,' " said Clements, a fellow female lawyer who regards Miers as a trailblazer. "She just overcame any obstacles with hard work and dedication and being a very good trial lawyer."

Miers met Bush in the 1980s, and was drafted to work as counsel for his 1994 gubernatorial campaign. In 1995, he appointed her to the Texas Lottery Commission. After working as a lawyer in Bush's presidential campaign, she came to Washington with him in 2001.

"I remember seeing him in her office many years ago, before he was governor, before he was running for anything," Clements said. "So it's been a long relationship and a very loyal relationship. She really is one of those people that the practice of law and all things associated with that really has been her life."

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