Thursday, October 27, 2005

The 'pit bull' in the kennel

George Bush’s annus horribilis just keeps rolling along. An announcement today reveals just how high the burn rate really is on that “political capital” he claimed to have inherited two days after the 2004 election. With White House counsel Harriet Miers’ voluntary withdrawal from consideration to fill the pending vacancy of Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, President Bush has experienced the latest in a series of body blows to whatever vestige of Leadership & Prestige he has left. In the world of bad-luck presidential poker, George Bush keeps doubling down – by accident.
It’s anyone’s guess if the president’s nomination of Miers was meant as a real, honest validation of his estimation of her as a litigator and a champion of the law, or as a flattering but calculated maneuver meant to buy him time to build momentum for naming Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to the high court, which is what he’s thought to have wanted all along. Whatever the real reason, it has backfired in a way that underscores the image of an administration in a free fall – a government waiting on what may or may not be the next blow to the head from some guy named Fitzgerald.

You’re tempting to blame his handlers and advisers, but something about the nomination of Miers from the beginning seemed to be so stunningly off the wall, it was quite clear in this instance that the president was taking no one’s bad advice but his own. It was always hard to imagine Harriet Miers as an especially brilliant mind, with anything close to withering erudition, anything faintly resembling the rapier insights of Holmes, Brandeis, Frankfurter and Warren.

There were, in the early going, some people (me included) who were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt on the grounds of bringing to the high judiciary a lived-in life, with experiences and viewpoints off the beaten track; we knew she was a lawyer, one who worked capably and efficiently in the pressure cooker of the post-Sept. 11 White House, and she was in some personal respects refreshingly out of the mold [in both spatial and fungal contexts] of those who ascend to the closest thing we have to a throne in America.

Then the Senate Judiciary Committee began the process of drilling down into the nominee’s substance – as much for her positions on topics of the day as for a sense of her grasp of constitutional law. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a mensch on the Hill if there’s ever been one, gave her more than one benefit of the doubt, saying at first that she could be the consensus candidate they were dreaming of. Schumer later met with her, made nice … and kept digging, and not digging so terribly far before he found himself coming up on dry wells of constitutional scholarship where there should have been gushers.

Others in the Senate said much the same. A groundswell of bipartisan opposition emerged, rude and smug, strident and talk-radio mean. You half expected a crowd with torches and pitchforks to roll the tumbrels up onto the White House lawn in a hunt for her office, her staff and herself.

Harriet Miers had the inescapable bad luck to be the juggling act to follow a performance by the judicial equivalent of Lord Olivier. The nimble, polished presentation of John G. Roberts Jr. at his confirmation hearings set an incredibly high bar, and anyone following his act in front of the senators would have paled by comparison.

But there were shortcomings. The senators on the committee knew it. Harriet Miers probably knew it. The press knew it (or they said they knew it, but of course they say they know everything). Maybe even the president knew it (he wouldn’t say he knew it, but frankly sometimes we wonder if he knows anything).

The “pit bull in size 6 shoes” who stormed out of the gate with such promise– what, two weeks ago? – is back at her desk in the White House kennel again, one of many people lately dispatched to the doghouse, and not likely to be the last.

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