You've Come a Long Way, Ladies

By Tina Brown
Thursday, October 13, 2005

The healthiest aspect of the Harriet Miers nomination is that women haven't rallied to her cause. Ten years ago, there would have been a lot of reflexive solidarity about keeping the Sandra Day O'Connor spot on the Supreme Court from reverting to male type. But every female lawyer I've spoken with in the past week skips right past the sisterly support into a rant about Miers's meager qualifications or her abject obeisance to power. The good news is that for women, it seems, Miers's nomination is like the moment for blacks in Hollywood when it was suddenly okay to cast an African American actor as something other than a perfect hero. The Sidney Poitier phase is definitively over.

Nevertheless, there's a feminist- or pre-feminist lesson here. Miers's whole story can be read as a cautionary tale for women on the move. It's about the sacrifices she made, the muzzled nature of her striving. The bleakest detail of Miers's résumé is that her decision to accept Jesus Christ as her savior took place at the office.

You can imagine the scene with painful vividness as the lamp burned late at her tidy desk on the 35th floor of the Republic National Bank tower in downtown Dallas, where she worked at the law firm of Locke Purnell Boren Laney & Neely. Another night without a date. Another night that would end with her key turning in the lock of a dark apartment, a bag of groceries in one hand, a briefcase bulging with documents in the other. Like Condi Rice, who sacrificed so much of her personal life to become a policy nun and ultimately the high priestess of the Temple of the Two Bushes, Miers had paid a price for her single-minded pursuit of career advancement. She had shattered every glass ceiling of the Texas bar, only to be waiting alone after hours for her old pal Judge Nathan L. Hecht to pad down the corridor from his office with a consoling Bible and the promise of being born again.

Reading the subtext of this story in the New York Times made me feel a twinge of empathy for Harriet Miers. At 60 she is a generation older than the other Bush women and her climb has come at the cost of a swallowed self. After all those years of pleasing and trimming and reassuring, how bewildered she must be to find herself cast as the wicked witch by the rabid Torquemadas of the Republican right.

Women have to be so damn perfect to get to the top. Or think they have to be. Laura Bush opted out of that struggle, preferring as she once said to "read, smoke and admire" from behind those enigmatic cat's eyes. But Condi felt she must not only win every academic prize but also twirl on the ice as a near Olympic-level figure skater and play the piano as well as Vladimir Ashkenazy -- all without activating the emotional antibodies of potentially threatened males. And Karen Hughes learned the trick of being the Big Mom of her boss's dreams, offering him the combination of awestruck admiration and gentle correction that Mother Bush was too acerbic and confrontational to manage. ("George, take your feet off my table," Kitty Kelley quotes Bar telling him in a typical mother/commander in chief exchange at a family get-together at Kennebunkport.)

The president favors women like Rice, Miers and Hughes because he has the kind of combustible male ego that needs to be "handled" -- and they know it, Miers better than most. As Merrie Spaeth, a veteran of the Reagan White House, told the Times, "It's marvelous to watch her in meetings with huge egos where she allows people to think good results are the product of their own ideas."

The difference between Rice and Miers is more than just the 10-year age gap or the psychic distance between Stanford and Dallas. Condi operates with careful deference, but unlike Miers she is more than just the skilled expediter of Bushean business. Condi has always been a peer who was too savvy to behave like one. While Miers stayed in a guest trailer on her visits to Crawford, Rice stayed at the ranch and worked out on the exercise bike next to Bush.

Twenty years or even 10 years ago ABC's "Commander in Chief" would have been a sitcom, not a drama. Now it's Bush who's the sitcom, though the laughs are bitter. He's the biggest reason why female leaders suddenly seem so relevant. He has debased the currency of machismo. From Iraq to New Orleans and back to Washington, his empty posturings, bonehead mistakes and panicky pratfalls have turned testosterone into Kryptonite. The cultural stage is being set for a woman president, even if the current understudies, from Hillary to Condi, end up stumbling over their own props or never come out of the wings.

Germany's Chancellor-elect Angela Merkel, with her lack of traditional female vanity, feels like the clearest harbinger of the future. Merkel didn't need Geena Davis's lips to become her country's commander in chief. Nor did she need the patronage and protection of some powerful male. Dour, forthright and serious, Merkel did it all by herself, with an invisible professor husband who pops out of his cuckoo clock only once a year at a Bavarian opera festival.

It's easy to forget that Margaret Thatcher -- whose "Don't go wobbly on me, George" famously stiffened the spine of Bush One before the Persian Gulf War in 1990 -- was there first, even down to a husband who was not so much invisible as comical. England's Iron Lady celebrates her 80th birthday tonight with a guest list dominated by the adoring circle of powerful male admirers whose loyalty she rewarded with seats in the House of Lords when she was prime minister.

The former chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain, Lord Palumbo, who lunched with Mrs. T six months ago, told me recently what she said when he asked her if, given the intelligence at the time, she would have made the decision to invade Iraq. "I was a scientist before I was a politician, Peter," she told him carefully. "And as a scientist I know you need facts, evidence and proof -- and then you check, recheck and check again. The fact was that there were no facts, there was no evidence, and there was no proof. As a politician the most serious decision you can take is to commit your armed services to war from which they may not return."

Happy Birthday, Lady T -- and hail to you and all the women who've gone before! You won us the freedom to say that if opting for a Harriet Miers means we risk getting not just a sycophant but a stem-cell-banning, abortion-denying, Bible-thumping presidential sycophant, maybe we'd just as soon have a guy.

2005Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company