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."
As a corporate lawyer in Dallas, Miers had been Bush's personal lawyer and worked as counsel to his campaigns for governor and president. Still, when she was invited to move to Washington, "it was certainly a challenging decision," said her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Lang-Miers, a Dallas judge. "She had so much respect for the president, but leaving Dallas, her home and her career was kind of a difficult decision."
Fleischer recalled that Miers had hoped she would become White House counsel from the outset. Instead, she was offered the job of staff secretary to the president. It is, Daniels said, "a thankless job. . . . Always a flak-catching job."
As staff secretary, Miers was the last person to handle every piece of paper that went to Bush, and, with scores of employees, it was her task to make sure each document was accurate and ready for the president's eyes. The papers ranged from correspondence to bills Bush was signing into law to memos synthesizing policy recommendations from White House and agency staff. Early every evening, she delivered to the president's residence in the East Wing a binder consisting of his schedule for the following day and tabbed sections that contained background material on the people and issues he would face. Fleischer called it "a perfectionist's job."
"You would have a particular phrase [in a memo] or a particular addition, and she would call you and explore at great length what that meant," said John Bridgeland, former director of the White House domestic policy council and the USA Freedom Corps.
"You had to meet her standards, which are very, very high standards, to get documents in to the president," said one former administration official who agreed to speak of a former colleague only on the condition of anonymity. "I would be fibbing if I didn't say at times that was frustrating."
In 2001, Bush's first year in office, Miers rejected the text of the White House Christmas card and ordered a new version because, the White House said, she did not think it was written well enough.
Miers played the quiet arbitrator. David W. Hobbs, the former White House director of legislative affairs, said he got calls from Miers "at 10 or 11 at night that [presidential counselor] Karl [Rove] or another White House staffer wanted the president to do something, but she wanted to check and make sure I was aware of it and didn't think it was going to cause damage on the legislative front."
Her work habits were legendary. Almost every Sunday, Miers went to the office after church, said Spellings, who says she cannot recall ever being at the White House when Miers was not there -- unless she was traveling with Bush. "She'd always read memos through again," said Kristen Silverberg, a former domestic policy adviser who is now an assistant secretary of state. "She'd be at the building till late at night reading everything to make sure everything was perfect."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), a friend from Texas, said Miers's life outside work is "not much. She works all the time." Occasionally, they have attended a ballet or opera, Hutchison said, adding, "I tried to get together with her several times, but she ended up having to cancel."
Many colleagues admired Miers's zealous work ethic, and her skill at balancing competing interests within the administration. "She was an impeccably honest broker and accurate conveyor of information to the president with no spin or distortion," said budget director Joshua B. Bolten, who was Bush's first deputy chief of staff for policy.
Others held a less charitable view. Some colleagues "really felt she was the place where the action stopped and the hand-wringing began," said a former administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
By July 2003, when Miers succeeded Bolten as deputy chief of staff, the dominant policy issue before the White House was a drive to push through Congress a new prescription drug benefit for elderly patients on Medicare. Thomas A. Scully, who was running the Medicare program, remembers Miers at all the meetings at which Bush was briefed. She impressed Scully as smart, but he said, "She had a very limited ego and was the ultimate Bush staff person. . . . I remember her at one point saying, I'm not a health care expert, so I'm not going to question."
"She can either dial it way down or way up as the situation calls for," said Spellings, who added that when her friend asserts herself, she does so "with the utmost intelligence."
Still, the deputy chief's job plunged her into a range of issues, some of which would become themes of Bush's reelection campaign. They included immigration policy, the space program, health information technology, Social Security, and a sequel to the No Child Left Behind law that would affect high schools. Last fall, as the country faced a shortage of flu vaccine, Miers immersed herself in the administration's eventual decision to import supplies from Germany. "I remember Harriet wanting to understand every nook and cranny of how vaccines are manufactured, how the approval process works," Spellings said.
Last February, she moved into the counsel's office. She has, said the current staff secretary, Brett M. Kavanaugh, handled constitutional-level matters, including issues involving executive privilege, the review of the USA Patriot Act and the National Security Council.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he intends to question Miers more closely but that he believes "her experiences with the president on the issues which have come to her as White House counsel are germane" to the court. Specter said that, in his interactions -- including on the nominations of John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice and herself -- Miers has struck him as responsive, intelligent and a strategic thinker. "A real professional," he said.
Already, Specter has had a firsthand glimpse of her work style. On Tuesday, he said, he asked her when she could complete a preliminary background questionnaire. "Some people take forever. Not Harriet Miers," he said. She told him she would return it within three days.