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WASHINGTON — In an administration that makes a virtue — for its staffers, at least — of anonymity and self-effacement, Harriet Miers could well be considered a saint. Miers, 59, tapped to replace Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales as White House counsel, has long been one of the most discreet, most private and most protective members of George W. Bush’s inner circle. Now Miers, the White House deputy chief of staff, is poised to become one of its most prominent as well. The first female president of the State Bar of Texas and a Dallas native, Miers has known Bush since 1993 when she became counsel to his successful gubernatorial campaign. In 2001, she moved to Washington with the newly elected president. She has worked here — as White House staff secretary and now deputy chief — ever since. She has also earned a reputation as exacting, detail-oriented and meticulous — to a fault, her critics say. “She can’t separate the forest from the trees,” says one former White House staffer. But Miers’ supporters say her emphasis on detail and procedure are exactly what the Office of the White House Counsel requires. “She is very thorough and very hard-working and very conscientious and very careful, which is why she was a good choice for staff secretary and why she’s a good choice as counsel,” notes Brett Kavanaugh, a former White House associate counsel who replaced Miers as staff secretary in the summer of 2003. White House spokesman Allen Abney says Miers will not be granting interviews until she begins her new job. Of course, there is no inherent contradiction in being able to provide the big-picture advice, both legal and political, usually required of a White House counsel and possessing a rigorous attention to detail. And Miers clearly enjoys the most important prerequisite for any successful White House counsel: the absolute confidence of her client. “Harriet Miers is a trusted adviser, on whom I have long relied for straightforward advice,” Bush said in a statement released on Nov. 17, the day he announced his intention to appoint Miers to the counsel post. “They are very close professionally,” adds Kavanaugh, who has been nominated for a seat on the D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. “Personally, the president has great confidence in her judgment, experience and care.” Pushing the Process Yet it’s not at all clear how Miers will fare in a job that includes a substantial amount of policy work. As staff secretary, she held the critical and demanding job of vetting every piece of paper that landed on Bush’s desk or ended up in his nightly briefing book. By all accounts, Miers’ thoroughness and her reputation as an “honest broker,” eager to allow all viewpoints to be heard, stood her in good stead as staff secretary. “People understand winning or losing. What they don’t understand is that they didn’t have a fair hearing,” Miers said in a 2003 interview with Texas Lawyer, a sister publication of The Recorder. She did raise some eyebrows early in Bush’s first term by arguing against eliminating the American Bar Association’s 50-year-old role of vetting potential federal judiciary nominations, a move led by Gonzales. (The ABA was removed from the vetting process in March 2001.) “She drilled down on everything so it was perfect, on every single thing,” says one former associate White House counsel. Yet her tenure in the Office of the Chief of Staff, where she is a top domestic policy adviser, has been more problematic. She had to fill the shoes of Joshua Bolten, a former Senate trade counsel and Goldman Sachs executive in London. Bolten, who left to become head of the Office of Management and Budget, had been steeped in policy arcana for years. “I would take clients in to see Josh,” says one Washington lobbyist. “But nobody in my world knew who Harriet was. They would see [Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy Margaret] Spellings and [Assistant to the President for Economic Policy Steven] Friedman instead.” Her critics say the problem goes beyond what Miers does or doesn’t know about policy — and right back to a near-obsession with detail and process. “There’s a stalemate there,” says one person familiar with the chief of staff’s office. “The process can’t move forward because you have to get every conceivable piece of background before you can move onto the next level. People are talking about a focus on process that is so intense it gets in the way of substance.” One former White House official familiar with both the counsel’s office and Miers is more blunt. “She failed in Card’s office for two reasons,” the official says. “First, because she can’t make a decision, and second, because she can’t delegate, she can’t let anything go. And having failed for those two reasons, they move her to be the counsel for the president, which requires exactly those two talents.” Responds White House Deputy Counsel David Leitch: “She certainly delegates. She couldn’t possibly dream of doing any of these jobs, this job or the job she has now, without delegating.” Walking in Footsteps There is no precise job description for the White House counsel. As the president’s lawyer, the counsel’s responsibilities can be narrowly construed — checking for legal problems on any White House policy, speech, or proclamation — or broadened to include substantive policy guidance. Since Watergate, the office has also taken a major role in making sure ethics rules are followed and financial disclosure forms properly completed. The job, says former White House Counsel A.B. Culvahouse, ranges from “vetting a declaration that this is National Dairy Goat Week to whether there’s a policy on allowing the use of the White House or Old [Executive Office Building] for meetings by outside groups, and if it is permissible, whether it’s something you’d discourage.” There were also frequent clashes with the speechwriters, recalls Culvahouse, who was President Ronald Reagan’s counsel from 1987 to 1989 and is now chairman of O’Melveny & Myers. “They always wanted to say something provocative and interesting and press-worthy. The counsel’s office would modulate it to be less provocative.” However the job is handled, though, it is tough to remain out of the spotlight for long. The office is now the principal vetter for judicial nominations, always a highly charged area and one that, in the next four years, will almost certainly have to approve a Supreme Court nominee or two. Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary during Bush’s first two years, says he occasionally found it useful to let Gonzales speak for the administration. “Whenever I needed Al to go out and talk, he would. He’d make phone calls,” Fleischer recalls. “He wasn’t a publicity hound, but he understood the role of the press.” “There are major public reverberations to the most private, sensitive internal deliberations. That means Harriet will need to think about the public hat that she wears even though her strengths lie in the private-advice category,” says Fleischer, who now runs his own consulting shop. He adds, “I think she’ll be up to the challenge because she’s very smart.” That view is echoed in Dallas, where she first started practicing law in 1972. “In my view, she’s a lawyer’s lawyer [who] grasps facts very quickly, in terms of sizing up a situation,” says James Francis, who was chairman of Bush’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign and suggested that Miers become campaign counsel. “She doesn’t make careless mistakes and doesn’t tolerate careless mistakes in others,” adds Francis, who runs his own investment company. At her new job, Miers won’t be working alone. The counsel’s office, which in the Bush administration has operated with fewer than a dozen associate counsel, will always draw on the much larger resources of the Department of Justice and its Office of Legal Counsel and Office of Legal Policy. More important, the man Miers is replacing, Alberto Gonzales, will be right down the street, a big change from the situation of most White House counsel, whose predecessors disappear into the private sector. That could heighten the already ambiguous relationship between the Justice Department and the White House over which one takes the lead on various matters, including judicial selection. “If you know you have Gonzales at Justice, does it matter who you have in the White House counsel’s office?” muses the Washington lobbyist. That’s particularly true when it comes to judge picking. “Right now, the White House counsel and the White House generally control a large part of the judicial selection process,” explains John Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Policy during the first Bush term. “But there’s no natural reason that has to be the case,” says Yoo, who teaches at the Boalt Hall School of Law. “Over time, the lead of picking justices has been in different places. Much of the function the White House counsel currently performs has been in the DOJ.” Still, there will always be issues that lead directly back to the counsel’s office, no matter how many other agencies were involved in making a particular decision — issues like those involving the legal conduct of U.S. soldiers. Gonzales, for example, was vilified over his Jan. 25, 2002, memorandum that provided a legal basis for not applying the Geneva Conventions to Taliban prisoners captured by the United States in Afghanistan. It was the counsel’s office that had to provide a constitutional argument supporting Vice President Dick Cheney’s right to keep details of his National Energy Policy Development Group secret, and prevent General Accounting Office chief David Walker from reviewing its internal deliberations. “To litigate Walker v. Cheney, that took some guts and some judgment [as to] why the stakes in the litigation are worth the risks politically,” says the former White House staffer. Ditto for the White House decision not to go ahead and launch an internal investigation into whether the White House had provided special favors for the collapsed energy giant Enron Corp. “The conventional wisdom was to investigate,” says the former staffer. “But Gonzales opted for a more passive approach — that we not investigate ourselves — and that turned out to be the right decision, contrary to a lot of the advice he was getting.” Until Gonzales actually assumes his new job, and Miers replaces him, it is impossible to know how the two will share their overlapping responsibilities. And it is far from clear which members of the counsel’s office will move with Gonzales, who will stay, and who will move into the private sector. According to the former White House official familiar with both Miers and the counsel’s office, Miers has already begun meeting privately with the current associate counsel. The former official was told by one associate counsel who had met with Miers that the conversation was both “awkward and uncertain.” Star-Spangled Resume Miers comes to the counsel’s job with an impressive resume and a number of firsts. Born in 1945, she grew up in Dallas and, until moving to Washington with Bush, spent almost her entire life there. She went to Southern Methodist University for both her undergraduate degree (in mathematics) and her J.D. She spent one summer working for plaintiffs lawyer Melvin Belli in San Francisco. After law school, Miers clerked for U.S. District Judge Joe Estes (also in Dallas). In 1972, she became the first woman hired by Locke Purnell Boren Laney & Neely, a venerable Dallas firm that traces its roots back to the 1890s. She became president of the Dallas Bar Association in 1985, and in 1989 was elected to a two-year term as an at-large candidate on the Dallas City Council. After Bush was elected governor, she represented him in a title dispute over his East Texas fishing house. In 1995, Bush appointed Miers to a six-year term on the Texas Lottery Commission when it was mired in scandal. She was a driving force behind its cleanup. Miers was elected president of Locke Purnell in 1996, by then a 225-lawyer firm. Three years later, it merged, and she became co-manager of Locke Liddell & Sapp. Miers, president of the State Bar of Texas from 1992 to 1993, played an active role in the American Bar Association. She was one of two candidates for the No. 2 position at the ABA, chair of the House of Delegates, before withdrawing her candidacy to move to Washington. A commercial litigator, Miers represented such clients as the Microsoft Corp., the Walt Disney Co. and the Republic National Bank. In 1996, at an Anti-Defamation League Jurisprudence Award ceremony, Bush introduced Miers as a “pit bull in Size 6 shoes,” a tag line that has persisted through the years, in part because colorful anecdotes or descriptions about Miers are notoriously difficult to find. “She’s not a back-slapper. She’s very businesslike,” says Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, who has dated Miers over the years and has known her since he first became a lawyer at Locke Purnell in 1975. “She’s also very kind. She always remembers everybody’s birthday, and has a present for them. She’ll be finding a present for somebody in the middle of the night,” he says. “‘Can’t it wait until next week?’ ‘No,’ she’d say, ‘It has to be done now.’” Miers, who turns 60 in August, is single, a devout churchgoer, and very close to her family: two brothers and her mother in Dallas and a third brother in Houston. Even people who know her well note that she is extremely private, good at eliciting opinions from others, but not generally revealing of her own. And she seems genuinely honored to work in the White House, they add. In her 2003 interview with Texas Lawyer, she talked about her job of taking the nightly briefing book to the president. “Sometimes when we are carting it over there, we think, ‘My goodness,’” Miers said. Thomas Connop worked closely with Miers at Locke Liddell from 1986 until 2001. “There are a lot of colorful characters in the Texas legal market, and I could probably come up with lots of stories about other folks, flattering and unflattering,” says Connop, a Locke Liddell partner. “Harriet is a hard worker, personable, a client-oriented attorney who is extremely thorough and not flamboyant. And I don’t think I’d be hurting her feelings by saying that.” T.R. Goldman is a reporter with Legal Times, a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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