Politics & Policy

L’Affaire Miers, &C.

I know the web is swamped with Harriet Miers commentary, but I’ll say a brief word–in part because readers have asked me to. (Do I pretend that I’m spouting off because of popular demand? Not really.) (But it does play an itty-bitty role.)

Let me tell you about my first reaction to the nomination: I was stricken. Felt sort of ill. And many of my friends–professional conservatives, if you will–felt the same way. In those first hours, I kept hearing, “I feel sick, I feel punched in the stomach, I feel betrayed. Scalia or Thomas we were supposed to have. And this!”

I think a lot of us felt a little embarrassed, too: Conservatives have such a starry stable, in the law, and the president comes up with Harriet Miers? I mean, have we put our best foot forward? We had a chance to show off! There were so many names in the air: Luttig, Wilkinson, Alito, McConnell (either Judge Michael or Sen. Mitch)–just pick one. Throw a dart. Say eenie-meenie-minie-mo. Whatever. Even Al Gonzales would have been better! We righties would have squawked, but . . . come on: Harriet Miers?

It seemed above all an unserious nomination–Bush’s critics have always said that he’s unserious, a lightweight. This seemed to confirm them.

(Speaking of lightweightedness: I should pause to note that, already in this column, I have used the words “itty-bitty” and “eenie-meenie-minie-mo.” Is this National Review or Dr. Seuss?)

Oh, we were furious in those first days: This was just another example of the president’s overpersonalization of things–of his over-reliance on friendship, and his “gut.” You know how Bush often says about someone, “He’s a good man”? Okay, but what about performance, what about ability, what about potential to influence? A Supreme Court nomination is not a matter of whom the president feels comfortable with at dinner, or at a ballgame. He won’t be living in Washington much longer anyway.

And didn’t Bush care about his legacy? He had a chance really to put his stamp on the Court! How deep a stamp would Harriet Miers prove? And maybe that stamp would be negative–Souteresque?

In addition to which: Wasn’t she . . . a little old?

(Reminds me of Woody Allen’s favorite joke: Two women come out of the country club. One says to the other, “The food’s gotten terrible there,” and the other answers, “Yeah, and such small portions.” Well, some of us are griping about Miers’s suitability–and her “advanced” age!)

And then there were grave concerns about the lady’s views–not her credentials, but her views: How conservative was she? Not very, it seemed. She seemed more like an establishment Republican, a Lewis Powell (at best). And was she even as conservative as Sandra Day? Could it possibly be that George W. would leave the Court more liberal than he had found it? Roberts for Rehnquist is pretty much a swap. A mere swap for Sandra Day would have been bad enough–but, golly, had we even done that well?

I joked darkly that maybe Miss Miers had lived in the New Hampshire woods with her mother. (That was a Souter reference, in case you need refreshing.)

Finally, there was the feeling of a hideously wasted opportunity: Republican president; 55 bodies in the Senate; swing seat–bingo. How often do you get it?

Not often.

Still, even in the darkest moments–I realize I’m relating a kind of psychodrama, instead of penning a proper column–I thought: You know, maybe President Bush–wily ol’ George W.–knows something. Maybe this is a masterstroke, a genuine coup. Perhaps we’re entertaining an angel unawares. Maybe five years, ten years from now, we’ll say: “We were all aghast, but Bush knew better. Bless him.”

Even then, however, I thought, “Yeah, but even if she votes ‘correctly,’ how about her intellectual heft? How about the way she carries herself in the world? Will there ever be something like a Miers school? Will the bright, right-leaning law students pine to clerk with her?” (I guess, as a rule, they’re just happy to be there.)

I must tell you, however, that I am rather calmed down now. A little optimistic. Maybe Miers’ll be all right. Maybe our initial reactions are overblown. And maybe some of the most thunderous conservative commentary has been a little insulting–to Bush and to Miers. Wrongly insulting.

I was very much comforted by a talk I had with a federal-judge friend. I thought he would be mortified, as so many of us have been. And I was shocked to find that he was delighted with the choice–and thought the general conservative criticism was bunk.

Since sociology–the awful matter of class–has played a role in the Miers brouhaha, I might give you this judge’s credentials: He went to the very fanciest schools in the country (starting with prep school). He was a partner at just about the fanciest firm in the country. And he was a federal judge pretty early. In other words, he is at the top of the elite heap.

And he thinks Miers is superbly qualified–loves her background, loves what she has done. Loves what he thinks he knows about her character, and her work habits. Thinks she would be terrific on the Court. “The Supreme Court is packed with former Court of Appeals judges,” he said. “We don’t need any more. And, you know? They’re not necessarily all that impressive, trust me.” He went on to describe one of the judges presumed to have been on the president’s short list as “frightening”: frightening as in, not too swift.

Could be I’m just trying to buck myself up. And I anticipate lots of mail–unless I nip it in the bud now–scolding, “You kept saying, ‘I feel,’ and, ‘They feel,’ and, ‘He feels.’ What’s with all this ‘feelings’ nonsense? Been watching Oprah?” I agree.

But sometimes, in Impromptus, we sort of let it hang out. And one’s gut–for better or worse–often plays a part in human affairs, including the nomination of Supreme Court justices. Otherwise, you know: We could just try to program a computer.

‐Oh, just one more word about the Miers nomination: I believe Bush was asked the other day, “Is Harriet Miers the most qualified person in the country?” I hate that question. What a stupid, unfair, jerk question. It’s meant, basically, to insult the nominee, and the nominator.

I remember that the first President Bush was asked that question, about Clarence Thomas. I don’t remember that Clinton was asked it, about his own nominees.

Let’s be realistic: There are hundreds–thousands–of qualified people in this vast, overlawyered country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Give us a break.

Ain’t no one ever been more qualified than Robert Heron Bork, and the Senate–and much of the American establishment–didn’t want him, did they?

Don’t talk to me about qualified, please–or at least about “most qualified.”

Ah, and one more memory: I remember when Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy, after Bork had failed–or the country had failed him–and the Doug Ginsburg nomination had gone down (in marijuana smoke). Reagan had a press conference, to unveil him. One reporter–it may have been Helen Thomas–asked the nominee, “How does it feel to be the president’s third choice? Humiliating, huh?” Reagan intervened, and said–I can see him making a motion with his hand–”You could have thrown a dart. That’s how close they were. We had so many excellent candidates.”

That’s why I used that phrase, above–”throw a dart.” Reagan taught me that (and, of course, much else).

‐Might say a word, too, about the mag’s 50th-anniversary festivities in Washington last week. Were you there? If so, super-duper. Were you not? Well, in that case . . . wish you had been.


Let’s see . . . The fun started with an afternoon session in a hotel banquet room (or some kind of room, it was). A few of us questioned WFB about a half-century of NR. Bob Novak was on the panel–he arrived in Washington during the second Eisenhower administration, when he was a pup. He is as fixed in our capital as the Smithsonian. Do you realize that his column has been going for 42 years? That is almost Buckleyesque. And it was observed that he and Evans–had they worked and teamed in a later age–would have been hot bloggers.

Jeff Greenfield was on the panel, too. Jeff is one of WFB’s favorite liberals (and one of mine, too, which is far less consequential). WFB chose him as a regular sparring partner on Firing Line. Well before that, Jeff worked for Bobby Kennedy, and then John Lindsay–the man who cheated Bill out of the New York mayoralty in 1965. (Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Lindsay spared him that post.)

It will not surprise you that WFB was in splendid form, exuding intelligence and wit. I might be expected to say that–but, I’m sorry, it’s simply true.

The next morning, we had the White House ceremony you may well have read about. Eight people offered testimonial tributes to WFB. Each speaker was first-rate, in his own way. Judge Jim Buckley–the former Senator Buckley–spoke about what it has been to be Bill’s brother. Henry Kissinger read a phenomenally eloquent statement, about his history with WFB. I have always maintained that HK is underrated as a prose stylist. Bill, Norman Podhoretz, and other top critics agree.

Speaking of eloquent: Roger Kimball spoke, erudite, sparkling, as always. And Stan Evans was a plainspoken joy. He said many really funny things, of which I’ll relate only one (in paraphrase): “I think that any young person with any sanity ought to be a conservative. And, as he gets older, he should become even more conservative. That’s what has happened to me.”

Kilpo was there–James Jackson Kilpatrick–feisty and graceful. (He has always managed to combine these qualities.) He told about an eventful sail, 30 years ago, aboard one of Bill’s boats. George Will did as beautifully as you would expect–both in the thinking and in the prose departments. Then Sir Alistair Horne took the podium. He may be Bill’s oldest friend, having gone to school with him (not college, but school). Sir Alistair remarked that Bill has always been outstanding at everything–except for painting. “He is a really bad painter. Once, Marc Chagall saw a painting of Bill’s, and said, ‘Oh, the poor paint.’”

The last speaker was President Bush, who had just come–just come–from that major speech on the war (delivered at the Reagan Building). With us, he was gracious, self-deprecating, forceful–you know, himself. Then he took Bill and some others off to lunch.

And that night . . . the gala dinner, involving a cast of thousands (or rather, of a thousand–that was about the number). Condi Rice swung by, lots of other people swung by–and swung throughout the evening to the Eric Felten Orchestra, Washington’s finest musical ensemble. (Not much competition from the NSO, unfortunately.) I have loved this band for at least ten years, and was astounded to find they have become even better.

And, if I may, through this column: Thanks to all of you who expressed so much warmth, appreciation, and support. Highly meaningful.

‐Before saying goodbye, let me feed the music-hungry with some reviews from the New York Sun:

For a review of the Metropolitan Opera’s Cenerentola (Rossini), please go here.

For a review of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice, please go here.

For a review of Opening Night at Carnegie Hall with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, with the pianist Yefim Bronfman, guest soloist; and for a review of the New York Philharmonic, with Lorin Maazel, conductor, and pianist Jonathan Biss, guest soloist, please go here.

For a review of the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis in the Verdi Requiem, please go here.

For a review of the New York Philharmonic, under Lorin Maazel, with Lang Lang, pianist, please go here.

And for a review of the Jupiter String Quartet, please go here.

There. That oughta hold you!

‐A short letter and out?

Dear Jay–

Your note on “Leonardo” vs. “Da Vinci” was good–but not as much fun as the story my high-school son brought home the other day. He’s taking Spanish I on a satellite basis through a college. As the instructor is reviewing numbers, one boy in class spontaneously pours forth: “Oh, so that’s why they call it ‘Uno’!”

Later, y’all.


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