Tracy Rowlett Interviews Harriet Miers

Harriet Miers speaks out to Tracy Rowlett. Published in D Magazine, April 2005.

Harriet Miers is a very private person in the very public—and powerful—job of White House counsel. What’s interesting about the former member of the Dallas City Council, however, is that she has few detractors, which is mystifying in the high stakes game of presidential politics. Though she admits that she doesn’t like to talk about herself, the 59-year-old is the consummate insider, fiercely loyal to the president, and a trusted confidant who advises him on the most delicate legal matters facing his administration.

Rowlett: How did you become so close to President Bush?
Miers:
Back when the president was first running for governor, I was introduced to him as someone who could represent the campaign committee on ethics issues and other matters. And that began the relationship.

Rowlett: You became his personal lawyer. You headed the Lottery Commission in Texas for him. And you went with him to Washington in 2001. That sounds like a close relationship.
Miers:
I have an enormous respect for the president and Mrs. Bush. It has been a tremendous privilege to work with him in various capacities down through the years.

Rowlett: In his most famous comment about you, President Bush described you as a “pit bull in size 6 shoes.” Do you really wear size 6 shoes?
Miers:
(Laughs) You don’t really want me to answer that, do you?

Rowlett: No. But I would really like to know if that is how you would describe yourself. Are you a pit bull?
Miers:
I like to let others describe me. But I know the president wanted to let others know that I could be tough when toughness is required. The president expects me to give him unvarnished advice, and I will always endeavor to do that.

Rowlett: So you’d agree that you are tough?
Miers:
Well, my profession is one that is built on service and getting a job done for a client. I love being a lawyer, and I certainly want to be an effective representative for the clients who are depending on me.

LEGAL OPINION: “The president expects me to give him unvarnished advice,” Miers says, “and I will always endeavor to do that.”

Rowlett: President Bush also looks for people who consider loyalty a virtue, doesn’t he?
Miers:
I think you’ll find in the people surrounding him an incredible dedication to him and to Mrs. Bush. He is an inspirational guy. When people see that, they want to go to the ends of the earth for him. It’s a really unique quality in somebody.

Rowlett: Inspirational in what way?
Miers:
Well, I remember when he was running for governor of Texas, or when he was running for president, he told people clearly what he wanted to do and changes that were needed, even though the changes were not going to be popular. I have always had a love for teaching and even got my teaching certificate when I was in college, but when I hear the president talk about the importance of education and our schools and what they ought to be doing, and how we can best provide every one of our students with the background they’ll need to succeed, it is inspirational.

Rowlett: I remember President George H. W. Bush once telling me that it was important to pick your friends carefully in Washington. You’d agree?
Miers:
Well, this White House is a friendly environment. I’m often asked what my biggest surprise has been since coming to Washington. For me, it’s been how incredibly pleasant it is to deal with very significant issues with people you’re at ease with, and there’s not this competitive environment you might expect in a White House experience. It’s made a tough job more pleasant. And White House Chief of Staff Andy Card is wonderful and dedicated. When he gets choked up about such things as the oath of office, it’s difficult not to get choked up with him.

Rowlett: But critics say the president is surrounded by people who tell him only the things they believe he wants to hear.
Miers:
I find that a bizarre comment. That is not like the president, and it is not like his advisers. The president is surrounded by very strong-willed individuals who speak their minds. For example, people who would say [Secretary of State] Condi Rice would only say what the president wants to hear don’t know Condi Rice. I could go on down the list, but I think the president’s manner is to be inviting of a person’s views and to have the benefit of comparing those views and playing them off of each other. And one thing you learn in this environment is that you can’t come at a problem with just one viewpoint because the issues are too complex. You have to hear every aspect of an issue whether you are talking about funding or whatever else the issue might be. This president likes to hear what people really believe, and he has advisers who speak their minds.

Rowlett: Democrats don’t see the White House as a friendly place. They call the president polarizing, even though he went to Washington with a promise to reach across the aisle. What happened?
Miers:
Part of the president’s vision is to initiate real change. He didn’t come to Washington to mark time. He came here to make a big difference. And when you take on big issues, there’s a lot at stake and the debate is vigorous.

Rowlett: But someone inside the administration touched off one of the biggest debates when that person leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Did that leak surprise you?
Miers:
Well, the president has asked his staff to cooperate with the investigating authorities on that matter. Obviously we are anxious but are doing what we can to cooperate fully. Time will tell what the facts are, and we’ll just wait and see.

Rowlett: Should the reporters involved in that story go to jail for not revealing their source?
Miers:
That’s obviously a matter that’s in the courts, and we’re going to see what the courts do with it.

Rowlett: So, if not that leak, what is the most difficult issue you are personally dealing with in the White House right now?
Miers:
You know, that is a really difficult question, and I don’t know that I can just pinpoint one thing because there is such a broad range of different issues. Obviously, the quality of the judiciary, and our work in identifying for the president qualified nominees for the bench takes a good deal of our time and is critically important. But it is hard to identify just one thing as most important when you are in government. There are so many things. And each of those things is most important to someone.

Rowlett: Were you surprised by the tone in Washington?
Miers:
I’ve been disappointed to see some things. For instance, on Priscilla Owens. [Editor’s note: Owens is the conservative Texas Supreme Court Justice whose nomination to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has been blocked in the Senate.] Knowing and watching her over the course of the years, knowing the incredible person that she is, and knowing what a highly capable and qualified jurist that she is, what’s happened to her in the judicial process is surprising and disappointing. You would never expect that someone who is as well thought of in our state, across party lines, could experience what she’s had to experience. It’s just personally very, very disappointing that she has been treated the way she’s been treated.

Rowlett: I think the president summed that up by saying it is just the tone of politics in Washington. Would you agree?
Miers:
The issues here are as serious as issues get. But Justice Owens is a fair and excellent jurist who is entitled to an up or down vote in the Senate, and she should have gotten one. It is just very disappointing to see that she hasn’t.

Rowlett: Do you see him each day? Do you take your marching orders from him, or do you take matters to him?
Miers:
His advisers see him when we need to. So, when an issue is on the table that I need to consult with him about, then I will. And we have meetings from time to time that are scheduled to discuss a policy issue that has a legal issue involved, too. But he is very accessible to his advisers, and when we need to see him, we can. The White House is designed with an organization to handle issues in an orderly and appropriate fashion. Issues that need a lot of attention get a lot. I have found, for example, the policy process to be remarkable in how it functions. There are both processes and resources available to make sure issues get the attention they need.

Rowlett: You also advise the president on national security. Does the administration believe there will be another terrorist attack inside the United States?
Miers:
Well, I’m sure you’ve seen the testimony from the folks who are working so hard to see that doesn’t happen. We’re certainly a safer country today than we were before 9/11, and folks throughout government work hard every day to ensure that we don’t see another attack.

Rowlett: For the sake of that security, have we reached a point where we will have to sacrifice some of our freedoms and even some of our civil rights?
Miers:
Well, since the attacks on September 11, we’ve had to do some things that don’t allow the kinds of freedoms that we had before. We’re screened more closely in airports and you can’t stand up 30 minutes before a plane lands. But we hope that’s not sacrificing the freedoms that make America the country it is.

Rowlett: But the Supreme Court expressed concerns about a violation of civil rights when it issued its report on our treatment of detainees. What is your reaction to that ruling?
Miers:
There are a number of issues that are now in the courts involving a variety of questions that have been raised in reaction to an entirely new type of warfare. I hope there will be recognition of the fact that this is not a traditional war where people wore uniforms and fought battles in a way that we are accustomed to seeing. There are people evil enough to attack civilians and women and children, and dress up as civilians, and use a different set of tactics. We have to recognize those differences if we are going to be able to defend America effectively.

Rowlett: There are also Texas issues that are percolating up. Would you advise the president on such things as the Hutchison-Perry gubernatorial race that seems to be shaping up?
Miers:
That is not something this office would be advising the president about. (Laughs)

Rowlett: You are a former member of the Dallas City Council. Do you support the strong-mayor proposal?
Miers:
That will be something the people of Dallas will have to decide.

Rowlett: When your service for the president is concluded, do you plan to come back to Dallas?
Miers:
I serve at his pleasure. But when my time is over here, I definitely plan to come back to Texas.

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