If you believe the official line that Harriet Miers's withdrawal of her nomination to the Supreme Court was entirely her idea, then she must have figured out what every college freshman learns around this time of year: When you flunk a take-home exam, it's probably time to drop the course.

Of all the indignities poor Miers has had to suffer, getting a bipartisan "F" on the questionnaire she answered for the Senate Judiciary Committee might not have been the most embarrassing -- release of her sycophantic billets-doux to the extremely "cool" George W. Bush wins the mortification derby hands-down. But being ordered to try again on the committee's questions about her legal philosophy was bleakly ominous. It meant that the final exam -- her confirmation hearing -- was going to be really hard.

Uncool.

But of course if you believe this was all Harriet Miers's idea, I've got a nice piece of canal-front property in New Orleans I'd like to sell you.

It's much more likely that Miers was done in by the shocking revelation that she holds, or once held, views that suggest a modern and reasonable view of America. As The Post reported earlier this week, when she was president of the State Bar of Texas she gave a speech in which she said "self-determination makes sense" as a way of handling issues such as abortion and separation of church and state. She also set numerical targets to achieve racial and gender diversity in the legal profession.

There's no promise that these sentiments give a strong indication of how Miers would have voted on Roe v. Wade or affirmative action. Based on what we know, her philosophy seems to have shifted over the years depending on the circumstances, and her loyalty to the president is such that I believe she would have done her best imitation of a complete troglodyte on the court if that was what he wanted.

But even the suggestion of fleeting moderation was too much for the radical-right bullies who are demanding nothing less than a certified, red-meat conservative activist -- oops, I meant "strict constructionist" -- who will not hesitate to provide the swing vote on hot-button cases. That hardening opposition, plus the indignation of principled conservatives at her lack of discernible grounding in constitutional law, meant that she was losing Senate votes as time went on, not gaining them.

Normally this White House would have just bulled ahead, twisting arms and knocking heads until the rebellion was quelled. But the chief twister and knocker, Karl Rove, has been preoccupied with his own legal situation, and the president's approval ratings are so low that he was hardly in a position to appeal over the senators' heads to the public.

So now Bush has to suffer not only the indignity of getting slapped down by his own party but also the pain of having put a loyal friend through weeks of humiliation that turned out to be ultimately pointless. It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for the president -- until you realize that he brought this on himself.

I have many, many problems with George Bush, but I do believe that in his own way he has some commitment to diversity. If it's just tokenism, it's more impressive tokenism than the Democrats were ever able to muster -- Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales are all trailblazers. I think he wanted to put a woman on the court to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, and I think he would be right to believe that some of Miers's harshest critics were being patronizing and sexist.

But of course it was Bush who made this uncomfortable bed for himself. Remember all that rhetoric about being a "compassionate" conservative? Well, that went by the wayside when it turned out he needed the "sledgehammer" conservatives to get anything done on Capitol Hill. He promised them a Savonarola for the Supreme Court, and when he failed to deliver with John Roberts -- too brainy, too potentially reasonable, but ultimately unassailable -- they drew a line in the sand.

So now the president has two choices. He can up the ante and give them somebody like Alberto Gonzales, who has a record of (gasp!) sensible moderation but also possesses impeccable qualifications -- and whose nomination would delight the nation's biggest minority. Or he could do the prudent, realistic thing and cave to the sledgehammer right.

But George Bush just hates to cave. Stay tuned.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com