By Michael Grunwald, Jo Becker and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 4, 2005
As a private citizen in Dallas, Harriet Miers was a devoted parishioner and Sunday-school teacher at a conservative evangelical church, and she donated money to an antiabortion group. As a City Council candidate, she opposed the repeal of a law against gay sex. As president of the Texas bar, she led a fight against an abortion rights plank adopted by the American Bar Association. And as President Bush's White House lawyer, she helped vet deeply conservative judges.
But lawyers and others who know Miers in Dallas and Washington say that Bush's latest nominee to the Supreme Court is not a conservative activist. They recall her as a well-regarded corporate litigator, a bridge-building council member, a reform-minded chairman of the Texas lottery, and a dedicated Bush loyalist renowned for her long hours but not hard-right ideology. Her red Mercedes-Benz was such a fixture in the West Wing lot that colleagues called it an abandoned car; she has never married or had children, and some of her friends believe she has sacrificed her personal life for work.
Miers has earned respect across the political spectrum for fairness and especially for diligence. As Bush's staff secretary, she was known to correct spelling, grammar and even punctuation errors in memos to the president. But she has no judicial experience and not much appellate experience. She clerked for a federal district judge more than 30 years ago, and Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht says he has dated her "off and on" for decades. But her friends say they have never heard her express any interest in the bench.
"I don't think she ever explored that as a career path," said Elizabeth Lang Miers, her sister-in-law, who is a judge in Texas.
But whatever the holes in her judicial résumé, Miers enjoys the absolute confidence of the president, who once called her "a pit bull in size 6 shoes." In 1988, she donated $1,000 to then-Sen. Al Gore's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, as well as $1,000 to Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. But ever since she represented Bush in a title dispute over an East Texas fish shack about a dozen years ago, her star has risen with his.
She was the attorney for Bush's gubernatorial transition team in Texas and chaired his state lottery commission. She helped recruit conservative lawyers for Bush during the Florida recount in 2000 and was reportedly assigned during the campaign to conduct a review of his National Guard service. She then moved to Washington as his White House staff secretary, controlling the flow of paper into the Oval Office, and was promoted to deputy chief of staff for policy and then chief counsel. She was a frequent guest at Camp David and helped Bush clear brush at his ranch near Crawford, Tex.
David Frum, a conservative commentator and former White House staffer, wrote on his blog that Miers once told him the president was the most brilliant man she knows. Many colleagues in the White House consider her personal views a bit of a mystery because she has subordinated them to the president's views.
"There's a deep, deep trust that the president has for Harriet," said Jack Howard, a former deputy assistant to the president for legislative affairs. "She is really close in."
Hecht, who first met Miers when she interviewed him for a job in the early 1970s, wields one of the most conservative gavels on the Texas bench. He said he has attended several antiabortion dinners with Miers and noted that she has always tithed to the Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, where antiabortion literature is sometimes distributed and tapes from the conservative group Focus on the Family are sometimes screened. He said her personal beliefs would not guide her jurisprudence, but he scoffed at the skepticism that some conservatives have expressed about Bush's selection of Miers.
"I know what her judicial philosophy will be, and when they find out what this president knows about Harriet, they are going to be happy as clams," Hecht said.
Harriet Ellan Miers grew up in North Dallas, the second youngest of five children. Her mother was a homemaker; her father was in real estate. Her classmates at Hillcrest High School remember the Miers family as especially serious about learning. "I remember that her mother wouldn't even let her watch television," said Sharon Baird, a neighbor and classmate.
Harriet was blond, pretty and athletic -- she captained the tennis team as a senior, and was voted "best all around in sports" -- but she was known as more serious than social. While the cool girls wore bouffant hairdos, she wore a long braid wound modestly around her head. And she was one of the few students outside the in crowd elected to class offices.
"Harry was popular, but popular in a certain way -- very efficient, very dependable, and as sweet as anybody in our class," said Denny Holman, a Dallas real estate developer who was president of the senior class of 1963 while Miers was treasurer.
When Miers was 19, her father suffered a severe stroke and was no longer able to run the family business. An undergraduate at the time at Southern Methodist University, she was about to drop out and take a job at Texas Instruments when her mother persuaded the school to provide financial aid and a campus job in the computer lab. "It was probably the most trying time I can recall," Miers told the Dallas Morning News in 1991. She was a math major with plans to teach, but as she watched a lawyer put the family's finances back together, she said in the interview, she began to realize that lawyers could be a force for good.
When she entered SMU's law school in 1967, Miers was one of eight women in her class. Professor Alan Bromberg remembers her poise, even as she was called on in large lecture classes filled with men; she was also a standout on the law review. "She was never flustered, always very prepared and able to articulate complicated issues intelligently," he said.
After graduating in 1970, Miers clerked for the late U.S. District Judge Joe E. Estes of Texas. She then joined the firm that is now known as Locke Liddell & Sapp, a blue-chip Dallas firm where she would spend the bulk of her career and would become the first female managing partner, named one of the 100 most powerful lawyers in the country. She specialized in commercial litigation, representing big-name clients such as Microsoft and Walt Disney Corp., with a portfolio including antitrust cases and corporate fraud. And she occasionally handled appeals, serving as a counsel of record in 13 such cases since 1989.
For the most part, Miers concentrated on the type of business law that doesn't make headlines. The key to her success was not brilliant oratory that left juries spellbound but meticulous preparation and her ability to earn trust. "She is a very loyal advocate and an astute counselor," said Tom Connop, one of her partners. "She will give a realistic, pragmatic view of the client's case, and I don't think she is afraid to tell a client what they might not want to hear."
In 1989, when Dallas was in the throes of litigation over redistricting, housing desegregation and police shootings, Miers was recruited to run for an at-large seat on the nonpartisan City Council. She won with support from the business establishment and civic leaders. She helped steer the city through its redistricting and desegregation controversies at a time when minority activists were chaining themselves to tables inside City Hall.
"She was an island of calm in a stormy sea," said Rob Allyn, a Republican political consultant in Dallas. "She was the most utterly nonpartisan officeholder I've ever met in my life."
Miers tangled with some of the city's liberal and minority leaders during the redistricting dispute, as well as some white conservatives, and a Morning News article described her reputation among colleagues as "dour, cold, uncompromising and uncommunicative." But the two outspoken African Americans who served on the council at the time, Diane Ragsdale and Al Lipscomb, both recalled her yesterday as tough but fair.
"We had our differences on politics, but she believed in diversity," Ragsdale said.
Lipscomb, who is still influential in the black community at age 80, said Miers knew the law "like a Baptist preacher knows the Bible." He described her as part silk, part steel.
"Look at how meek she looks, like Little Miss Milquetoast, so meek and humble with that ready smile," Lipscomb said. "But if you got in there unprepared, I'm telling you . . ."
Miers did not run for reelection, choosing instead to run for president of the Texas bar. The redistricting had eliminated at-large seats, and Miers had grown weary of the politicking required by elective office. "She doesn't suffer fools all that gladly, and that City Council was a zoo," said Fred Meyer, former chairman of the Texas GOP.
Miers also stepped up her involvement in the American Bar Association, serving on key committees and leading an effort to force a referendum on the association's abortion rights stance. It was a time when many conservatives were quitting the ABA, but Miers chose to fight from within. She was widely respected by lawyers across the political spectrum and was considered a likely future president of the organization. Blake Tartt, a former president of the Texas bar, said Miers believed it was inappropriate for the national association to take any stand on abortion or any other matter of personal conscience.
"She's not a social reformer. She doesn't carry banners," Tartt said. "She believes in the law."
Former ABA president Martha Barnett, a Democrat, asked Miers to chair the organization's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, which used to vet potential nominees. Miers declined, telling Barnett that it wouldn't be right because she planned to take an active role in Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. But their friendship has not wavered, even though they found themselves on opposite sides during the 2000 Florida recount. And sources said that inside the White House, Miers urged Bush not to disregard the ABA's judicial recommendations, a rare disagreement with the president.
Barnett said Miers is "an idealist, not an ideologue," reflecting the values reflect those of "mainstream America," not the far right.
In recent years, Miers has kept most of her beliefs to herself, but she has clung steadfastly to her commitment to George W. Bush. In 1993, Bush hired her to handle some legal questions for his campaign. After he became governor, she handled his personal legal affairs. He also appointed her to take over the scandal-ridden lottery commission, and she helped push the agency off the front page.
At the White House, Miers is one of the few members of the inner sanctum with ready access to the president. She is known for her extended workdays, sometimes as long as 16 hours. "She's the first in, last out," said Reginald Brown, a former associate White House counsel to Bush. Brown said that within the White House, Miers served as "the custodian of the president's values," making sure policy decisions were in line with Bush's agenda.
In 2003, Miers was promoted from staff secretary to deputy chief of staff, in which she was charged with breaking logjams between agencies. Several former administration officials complain that she was an overly cautious mediator, reluctant to delegate and slow to make decisions. Policy initiatives often stalled in her office, they say.
When Alberto R. Gonzales was named attorney general, Bush tapped Miers to fill his shoes as White House counsel. She has vetted judicial nominees -- including newly installed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. -- and advised the president on issues including the CIA leak investigation and the role of torture in the fight against terrorism.
Hecht said that with her rare spare time in Washington, Miers sometimes goes to the opera with "Condi and the other single girls," referring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He said he tries to find time to get together with her in Washington to watch a movie or eat at a restaurant. "She's a terrible cook," he said with a laugh.
She is particularly devoted to her mother, who has been an invalid for more than a decade and recently moved into a nursing home. Hecht said Miers has spent much of the money she made in private practice to hire staff members to care for her mother; she lives in a modest condominium in Arlington.
No matter what she does, friends say, Miers relies on her faith. The Rev. Barry McCarty, pastor at Valley View, described her as a born-again Christian who was baptized as an adult. When she has returned to Valley View, she has often greeted well-wishers before and after services and has asked them to pray for her and the president.
Staff writers Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, John Pomfret, Dale Russakoff and R. Jeffrey Smith and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.