For Miers, Proximity Meant Power

Harriet Miers, who got her start in the administration as the president's staff secretary, was known for her thoroughness in vetting papers for his review.
Harriet Miers, who got her start in the administration as the president's staff secretary, was known for her thoroughness in vetting papers for his review. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Amy Goldstein and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 13, 2005

In the days last November after he was elected to a second term, President Bush had chosen Alberto R. Gonzales as his next attorney general, and word was spreading that the president might replace him as White House counsel with longtime confidante Harriet Miers. A small number of advisers inside and outside the White House grumbled that she was ill-suited to become top lawyer to the president.

As a deputy chief of staff, these detractors quietly warned, Miers could be slow to make decisions, with a penchant for detail over strategic thinking. "People came to me with concerns," recalls Leonard A. Leo, executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, who said he heard complaints "that her management style was one that could miss the forest for the trees." Leo, who favored a friend for the job, confirmed that he forwarded the concerns about Miers when consulted by the White House.

Bush appointed Miers as his counsel nonetheless, and 11 months later nominated her to fill a pivotal vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Having now seen Miers at work, Leo said, "whatever concerns I may have harbored . . . have since evaporated" and he supports her nomination.

Still, the internal worries about how she would perform as counsel reflect a widespread view that, during five years in three jobs at the president's side, Miers has wielded formidable power with fairness and attention to detail -- but rarely was a strong voice in policy decisions the administration has faced.

"The thing about Harriet is, it wasn't about Harriet," said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, a friend. "To her, it was a matter of moving the grist through the mill. . . . She was a manager of the process."

Unlike some high-level presidential aides, Miers has never sought to advance her own views. Amid the clash of ideas and egos in the West Wing, colleagues say, she has been an island of reserve and decorum. "She blushes when the rest of us got a little raunchy," said Spellings, who worked with her closely as Bush's domestic policy adviser.

At staff meetings, Miers spoke up only when she considered it essential. "There were plenty of us banging around with very strong views on issues, and she understood she was wearing the striped shirt," said Indiana Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R), who was Bush's first budget director. "A word from Harriet would calm everybody down. She did have that schoolmarm voice."

Her demure exterior, however, cloaks a tough will and an uncommonly close relationship with Bush. In the Oval Office and on the road, Miers has spent more time with him than perhaps any aide except Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was flying on Air Force One as it sped the president to the Midwest and back after the terrorist attacks.

In June 2003, when Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare that "major combat operations" had ended in Iraq, Miers was part of a nucleus of aides who stayed overnight with him on the aircraft carrier. She is with him often at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., and is a regular weekend visitor to the presidential retreat at Camp David.

Such proximity to Bush makes her unlike any Supreme Court nominee of the past generation. Not since 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson nominated his personal lawyer and trusted adviser, Abe Fortas, has a president chosen someone with whom he is on such close terms.

Miers's atypical profile -- she is the first Supreme Court nominee in three decades who has not been a judge -- has given ammunition to supporters and detractors alike. Critics suggest she lacks gravitas and constitutional expertise and has not shown herself a sufficiently deep thinker to decide the nation's most profound legal questions. Others portray her as fair, diligent and a quick study who would import real-life experience to the court.

"She was always pleasant, always polite, always being tough as the paper kept moving," said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. "Is that a skill you need to be a Supreme Court justice? No, I don't think so. But it's a reflection of, when she has a mission, she knows how to accomplish it."

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