Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Bush nominates "pit bull."

He knows what he's doing... unless we're
mis-overestimating him this time.

BREAKING THE CHAIN. A lot of conservatives are sounding pretty upset about the nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard is "disappointed, depressed and demoralized." Rush Limbaugh says, "It's hard to resist the pull to be angry and depressed over this." Former Bush speechwriter David Frum says:

I worked with Harriet Miers. She's a lovely person: intelligent, honest, capable, loyal, discreet, dedicated ... I could pile on the praise all morning. But there is no reason at all to believe either that she is a legal conservative or--and more importantly--that she has the spine and steel necessary to resist the pressures that constantly bend the American legal system toward the left.

We don't have all the inside information these folks do, but sometimes the outside view brings a different and softer light to bear on events that occur in the dazzling glare of the media mob. So we'll offer one or two quick observations. Whoever Harriet Miers is, she isn't David Souter. Bush has known her well for a long time, which means that even if she's a stealth candidate in the eyes of the conservative power establishment, she isn't in the eyes of the man who nominated her. The question rapidly boils down to what appraisal we make not of Harriet Miers, but George Bush. Is it really conceivable that despite all his promises and assertions, he's a secret moderate about Roe v. Wade, public atheism, and judges micro-engineering our national culture from the bench? We suspect not.

But we also suspect something else that the conservative braintrust may be too smart -- or too snobbish or (gasp) sexist -- to perceive. Time and again, George W. Bush has proven that he is smarter than his critics and his mortal enemies can bring themselves to believe. Why do they have so much trouble recognizing his intelligence? Because he is not an intellectual. Definitely, positively, absolutely NOT. The meaning of this distinction frequently eludes even those who generally support the President. Take David Frum, for instance. He is terribly worried about the insidious pressures Washington exerts on supreme court justices:

There have just been too many instances of seeming conservatives being sent to the high Court, only to succumb to the prevailing vapors up there: O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter. Given that record, it is simply reckless for any conservative president to take a hazard on anything other than a known quantity of the highest intellectual and personal excellence.

The pressures on a Supreme Court justice to shift leftward are intense. There is the negative pressure of the vicious, hostile press that legal conservatives must endure. And there are the sweet little inducements--the flattery, the invitations to conferences in Austria and Italy, the lectureships at Yale and Harvard--that come to judges who soften and crumble. Harriet Miers is a taut, nervous, anxious personality. It is hard for me to imagine that she can endure the anger and abuse--or resist the blandishments--that transformed, say, Anthony Kennedy into the judge he is today.

Frum is so caught up in the turmoil of DC social politics that he can't see the contradiction in his own argument. Consider the academic backgrounds of the justices who have previously failed to resist the "prevailing vapors," the "conferences in Austria and Italy," and the "lectureships at Yale and Harvard."

Anthony Kennedy, Stanford, London School of Economics, Harvard Law.
Sandra Day O'Connor, Stanford, Stanford Law.
David Souter, Harvard, Oxford, Harvard Law.

On the one hand conservatives are extremely vocal about decrying the pernicious influence of the country's most prestigious universities on the intellectual elite. They're inclined to use the names of certain institutions almost as swear words: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago. But when it comes time to nominate a supreme court justice, who do they regard as ideally qualified? Graduates of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago. Huh? (Remember, one definition of 'stupid' is repeatedly doing the same things and expecting a different result.) It's hard not to think that what depresses them the most about Harriet Miers are the initials "SMU." That's right. Harriet Miers got her law degree at Southern Methodist University in Texas. How awful. How gauche. How disappointing. Especially if you're an intellectual who got your degree from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, or the University of Chicago.

Now for a fascinating conjecture. What if George Bush has looked hard, through his non-intellectual eyes, at the repeated seduction of presumed conservatives and come to the common-sense conclusion that the people who are most likely to be swayed by the "blandishments" of European conferences and the social approval of Harvard and Yale are the hyper-intellectual academics trained by Harvard, Stanford, Oxford et al in the first place. And maybe he's smarter -- via his experience with his cagey common-sense wife and shrewd housewife-cum-communications director Karen Hughes -- than to be fooled into thinking that a soft-spoken lady with good manners can't be tough enough to withstand the social enticements of the left.

On the face of it, Frum's characterization is ridiculous. Harriet Miers didn't become head of a law firm in Texas, president of the Texas Bar Association, and Chief White House Counsel by being soft and compliant. The opposite case seems far more likely, that's she's hardheaded, practical, resilient, and rock-solid in her knowledge of who she is and what she believes. And she probably ain't no indecisive, pussyfooting intellectual neither. Would she rather take tea at Oxford or whip up some potato salad for the Sunday box supper at her church? If, as we suspect, it's the latter, she seems a pretty good bet to bring some real word savvy and sagacity to an institution that's sorely in need of it.

Don't forget that George W. Bush has gotten degrees from Harvard and Yale. Maybe he's finally acting on what he learned in those places decades ago.

That's our ignorant opinion anyway. The authority we'd most like to hear from is Barney. What does he think?

He hasn't commented yet, but we're damn sure he's smarter than Frum.

UPDATE. Here's a fine essay on the Miers nomination by Thomas Lifson. Don't skim it. Read it. Also see Villainous Company, who seems more scrupulously objective than her nom de guerre would indicate.

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