Correction to This Article
An Oct. 28 article about the unraveling of Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court misstated the site of her "murder board" mock hearings. They were held in an office building on the White House complex, not at the Justice Department.
The Unraveling

Nomination Was Plagued By Missteps From the Start

By Peter Baker and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 28, 2005; 9:42 AM

For Harriet Miers, the "murder boards" were aptly named. Day after day in a room in the White House complex, colleagues from the Bush administration grilled her on constitutional law, her legal background and her past speeches in practice sessions meant to mimic Senate hearings.

Her uncertain, underwhelming responses left her confirmation managers so disturbed they decided not to open up the sessions to the friendly outside lawyers they usually invite to participate in prepping key nominees.

It was clear that Miers was going to need to "hit a grand slam homer" before the Senate Judiciary Committee to win confirmation to the Supreme Court, as one adviser to the White House put it. "Her performance at the murder boards meant that people weren't confident she'd get the grand slam."

By nearly all accounts, the 24 days of the Miers nomination was hobbled by a succession of miscalculations. President Bush bypassed his own selection process to pick Miers, his onetime personal lawyer and White House counsel since February. His aides ignored warnings by some of the administration's closest conservative allies that she would prove difficult to confirm, and took for granted that its base would ultimately stick with the president.

And in perhaps the biggest misjudgment, Bush assumed that Miers would somehow shine in a Washington klieg light she had never before faced.

It did not take a call from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to convince the White House that Miers's nomination was in trouble. By the time Miers withdrew her name from consideration yesterday morning, her own colleagues had all but despaired of rescuing her nomination. With top Bush aides facing possible indictment as early as today, the White House concluded that it was time to move on and brace for the more threatening crisis.

"This thing never got off the launching pad very well," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because public airing of self-criticism is not encouraged in the White House.

"What we ran up against may be a different bar and maybe discomfort with the unfamiliar," another official said. "Did we learn anything? I don't know."

'This Isn't a Cakewalk'

On Sept. 23, the same day the Senate Judiciary Committee was voting to support John G. Roberts Jr. as the new chief justice, a conservative activist involved in the confirmation process got a call from the White House about Miers. "It was 'We'd like you to take the temperature,' " the activist recalled. How would fellow conservatives react if the little-known White House staff member became the next court nominee?

This conservative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a confidential conversation, spent that night thinking hard about what to say. The next morning, a Saturday, he had a 2 1/2 -hour meeting at the White House. "My short answer," he said, "was this is a heavy lift. It was going to be, at least preliminarily a bloodbath -- probably for a week or maybe slightly more." But he also said that if the White House handled it right, "you'd probably get people to a wait-and-see mode," and she could be confirmed. "I was obviously proven wrong."

"All of us who were supporting the White House on this expressed that we have a job here; this isn't a cakewalk," said Jay Sekulow, another lawyer advising the Bush team on the Miers nomination. Others flatly protested and warned against naming her.

Miers had not been prominent on anyone's short list but Bush's. As a longtime confidante from his home state of Texas, Miers had won Bush's trust and affection. She had run the judicial selection process, and impressed Bush and Vice President Cheney in private sessions by pressing to make sure candidates were conservative enough.


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