Yesterday's tribute by President Bush to William F. Buckley and National Review was arranged in happier times, when the Republican president and the right wing were still in a state of connubial bliss.
But the nomination Monday of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court turned yesterday's gathering at the White House of the conservative intelligentsia into a special presidential edition of "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"
In the front row for Bush's speech to the conservatives sat George Will, who the day before wrote that Bush "has forfeited his right to be trusted as a custodian of the Constitution." In the back row sat William Kristol, who wrote earlier in the week that the nomination of Miers had the look of "a combination of cronyism and capitulation on the part of the president."
Filling the other seats were the contributors to a magazine which, in the past 100 hours, has, on its Web site, called Miers "a petty bureaucrat," described the White House as "overly insular, increasingly off-key," and accused Bush of a "lack of conviction" and a "disservice" to the country.
The president, facing his jilted base, acted as if nothing had changed in the relationship. He entered the room beaming, joined by the 79-year-old Buckley, who stood to the side, hands in coat pockets, smiling a crooked grin. With Buckley (Yale '50) as his straight guy, Bush (Yale '68) reprised the amiable-dunce routine he used to great effect at a Yale graduation a few years ago.
"You probably think this is the Yale Scholars Association meeting," Bush cracked.
Recalling Buckley's view that National Review "stands athwart history, yelling 'Stop,' " the president deadpanned: "That's the approach I took to most of my classes."
And back in '55, when Buckley started National Review, "I was more interested in Willie Mays than I was in you," Bush confessed.
The laughter, polite and appreciative, turned more genuine when Bush struggled with the pronunciation of "eclectic," then added: "That's a Yale word."
It wasn't a bad routine, but it did not bring back that loving feeling. "It was really Katrina that set it off," diagnosed Jonah Goldberg, a National Review writer at the Buckley tribute. Conservatives were angry about the White House's unfettered spending after the storm -- and then came Hurricane Harriet.
"It's the nature of all relationships, really: The straw that breaks the camel's back is rarely the most obvious thing," said Goldberg, who opined on the magazine's Web site that Miers "meets the dictionary definition of a crony."
And while the president tiptoed around the Miers quarrel, the conservatives, in their White House hallway murmurs, did not. "All the private conversation was pretty much about Miers, and pretty one-sided," Kristol reported. So can the marriage be saved? "The easiest way to save it would be if Ms. Miers decided to withdraw her nomination," Kristol said.
Will, who delivered one of the tributes to Buckley before Bush joined the party, was not sure that it was safe to take his assigned seat in the front row. "Well, we're going to find out," he said. But the columnist suffered no retribution for his criticism of the president, perhaps because he is also a baseball enthusiast. "He gave me a knowing wink when he mentioned Willie Mays," Will recounted.
It was impossible to know if Bush was being rueful when he noted the "abundance of conservative columnists and radio hosts and television shows and think tanks" inspired by Buckley. "I guess in an intellectual sense, you could say these are all Bill's children. And like children, they grow up and go their own way."
They certainly do. Yesterday morning, National Review writer David Frum -- a former Bush speechwriter, no less -- complained in his blog that "there is scarcely a single knowledgeable legal conservative in Washington who supports this nomination." Miers, Frum wrote, "is being chosen for her next job in exactly the same way and for the same reasons that Michael Brown was chosen for FEMA."
It's not surprising that, after White House advisers branded Miers's critics as Northeastern, Ivy League elitists, the accused elites became even more angry. Kathryn Jean Lopez, writing on National Review's Web site, asked if Republican talking points "are usually this lame," and said the White House's defense of Miers was "patronizingly sexist."
On the National Review Web site yesterday, Buckley proteges were pleased with the presidential tribute to their founder -- but not enough to let up on Miers. Not long after Bush's speech, and before Bush and Buckley had a chance to digest their celebratory lunch, National Review posted another swipe at the conservatives' estranged mate.
"[I]t's an insult to all conservatives who care about the courts for the sake of law based on right reason," said the posting, by Mobile Register columnist Quin Hillyer. Miers "remains a crony, in the very sense warned against by Hamilton. Senators should have no compunction about opposing her."
Bush, on the other hand, may have some compunctions about inviting his friends to the White House again.