Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Why Vetting Failed to Catch Miers Surprises

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund is hinting that the vetting process for Harriet Miers was piss-poor and that, as a result, "we are going to see six or seven surprises come down the road the next few days." While he only gives specifics about one -- supposedly involving the Texas Lottery Commission -- what's truly interesting is what he reveals about how she was vetted.

I've written earlier of the role Bush's faith -- not the tenets of it, but the nature of it -- has played in his appointments of Julie Myers and Harriet Miers. But now, it appears that his narcissistic reliance on his own faith-backed instincts in his nominees' "hearts" (what I call cardio-meritocracy) might have yielded not only another unqualified nominee, but also produced a shoddy vetting process that might give six or seven rounds of ammunition to Miers' opponents.

Here's what Fund says (because of how Radio Blogger has transcribed it, I can't be sure about the exact order) in an interview Monday about the vetting process (emphasis added):

JF: Here's the problem. Because the White House has been so unfair to Harriet Miers and her supporters, because they haven't collected the information, they've sent you onto the beaches of Normandy without proper ammunition and armament. Because of that, we are going to see six or seven surprises come down the road the next few days, about Harriet Miers. Now all of them are sustainable individually. The problem is because the White House was completely unprepared for this, they're doing a disservice to you and her supporters...The story will be coming out this week, and it's going to involve possible interference by the governor's office with the operations of the Lotter [sic] Commission. I'm not saying Harriet Miers was involved. I'm simply saying these are stories that are going to come out, that need answers, and frankly, the White House hasn't done the homework. I hope they have the answers ready.


JF: ...Here's the question you have to ask the White House. Please explain to me, with specifics, how, since Harriet Miers was in charge of the vetting process for the Supreme Court nominee, since she ended up being picked herself, please explain to me exactly how much vetting was done, who did the vetting, and to what extent the vetting that was done on her was different, or the same as it would have been for any other nominee? You need to get the answers to those questions, because I have to tell you. I have gotten information on the vetting that was done with her. And frankly, it doesn't pass muster for even a district court appointment.
Despite Fund's rhetorical questioning, we already know who vetted Miers. Obviously, Miers couldn't vet herself. So, to whom did President Bush turn for a fair, impartial screening of his potential Supreme Court nominee, the White House counsel?

William K. Kelley, the deputy White House counsel.

That's according to the Oct. 5 New York Times, which reports: "Ms. Miers had been a leader in the search for a nominee, and Mr. Bush had kept her in mind for the next vacancy. The president discussed the idea with the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., and Mr. Card then directed Ms. Miers's deputy, William K. Kelly [sic], to vet her behind her back."

And how did Bush first come to have Miers in mind as a nominee? What fair, impartial person suggested to the president that he ought to nominate Miers, incidentally creating a vacancy in the office of White House counsel?

William K. Kelley, the deputy White House counsel.

That's according to the Oct. 4 Washington Post, which reports, "When Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced in July her plans to retire, Bush directed Miers to oversee the process to find a replacement. The choice of Roberts was widely hailed as a politically shrewd move, and Miers reaped some of the credit within the White House. At that point, according to another senior official close to the process, deputy White House counsel William K. Kelley suggested to Card that Miers ought to be considered for the next seat that opened."

In other words, Deputy White House Counsel William K. Kelley suggested that the president promote his boss, thereby creating a job opportunity for himself. Then, to ensure that Miers was a good choice, Bush turned back to Kelley, despite the fact that Kelley had, on the face of it, several motives for making Miers look good and downplaying any negatives that might arise:

  • His interest in obtaining Miers' job for himself.
  • His interest in not undermining his inital suggestion of Miers.
  • His interest in not displeasing Miers, his superior, by bringing to light negative information that could torpedo her nomination, keeping her in the very job where she would be best positioned to punish Kelley were she to discover his role in vetting her.
  • His interest in not displeasing Bush by bringing to light negative information about Bush's good friend.
These are all concerns that, in the corporate-modeled White House Bush advertises, would have prevented Kelley from getting the job of vetting his boss. Why? Because a logical analysis of the organizational hierarchy would have revealed inherent conflicts of interest. The nature of Bush's faith leaves him blind to such concerns, and to the value of such analyses.

I've long argued that Bush's faith (not the political stances of fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity, but the magical thinking of being born again) has sabotaged his administration, ultimately even sabotaging the goals of the same Christian right that supports this kind of thinking. Most notably, it's sabotaged Bush by enabling cronyism throughout his administration. It also allows him to devalue empirical (i.e., works-based) expertise in favor of friendship and loyalty (i.e., faith-based attributes). While the mainstream media have yet to come to grips with the implications of Bush's magical thinking, evidence of it can be seen between the lines in the same Washington Post piece that reveals Kelley's role. Some excerpts (emphasis added):

The result was a nomination that upended the modern-day conventions of the capital but underscored those of the Bush White House, an institution known for promoting from within, ignoring criticism from without and keeping secrets even from one another. Once he settled in his own mind that Miers would make a good justice, Bush disregarded the likely complaints of cronyism from the left and wails of disappointment from the right in order to install a trusted confidante on the nation's highest court...

Bradford A. Berenson, an associate White House counsel in Bush's first term [said], "The president is very, very confident in his judgments about people, and he likes to reward loyalty."

Aides said Bush had been dwelling on advice from Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and others to consider candidates with real-world lawyering experience, not just those from the appellate bench. "He was really struck with the idea of bringing an additional layer of diversity to the court in terms of life experience," said the senior official close to the process....
All but the latter italicized comments show just how profoundly Bush values only his own counsel. But note that it goes beyond simple confidence in his own judgment. It's not just an arrogance about his capacity for judging people. His choices reveal how he judges people. It's not that he conducts exhaustive, thorough, rigorous analyses and then relies on the findings; he turns repeatedly to those close to him, who are known to him and knowable to him not through rational analysis, but through personal connection. This allows him to abjure the meritocratic, empirical processes he so loathes and distrusts (because they reveal his flaws) and, empowered by the rationality-eschewing nature of his faith, embrace instead the opaque, unexamined mechanisms of his own subconscious (which clings to the faithful, loyal, uncritical and unquestioning).

We see this in the final passage I've italicized. Why would Bush value "life experience" -- as though Miers brings a wealth of that -- over judicial, academic or scholarly experience? Because it not-so-subtly aids and plays into his ongoing quest to undermine expertise of any kind. The man who makes judgments in the way I've described would have to devalue hands-on study and experience. It's why he denigrates law, intellectualism and education. It's why he made such a poor Supreme Court nomination. And it's why that nomination may now be jeopardized by similarly poor vetting.

UPDATE: Over at OpinionJournal.com, John Fund has posted a follow-up on the vetting process. There are some interesting revelations to be found. And I want to thank him for quoting me and crediting me. It was gracious of him and much appreciated.


Anonymous said...

You wrote: "This allows him to abjure the meritocratic, empirical processes he so loathes and distrusts (because they reveal his flaws) and, empowered by the rationality-eschewing nature of his faith, embrace instead the opaque, unexamined mechanisms of his own subconscious (which clings to the faithful, loyal, uncritical and unquestioning)."

Yes, yes, yes! Privilege doesn't have to prove itself. You are born into privilege and thus must avoid the all-seeing eye of merit.

unpoetaloco said...

Cardio-meritocracy? It's already after noon, and that's the first laugh I have had all day. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

they've sent you onto the beaches of Normandy without proper ammunition and armament.

Sounds like Iraq????

Julie Zuber said...

Jonathan, I too love the word Cardio-meritocracy. It's ironic that it has the ring of a scientific term. That makes it doubly amusing...much needed these days. Great Post!

Anonymous said...

Credit to Rachel Maddow for sending me here, I will add Petty Larseny to my growing list of must-read blogs.

Your assessmnt of Bush's Cardio-Meritocracy reminded me of something I heard (read?) over the weekend. It might have been Bill Maher (or one of his panelists?) who pointed out how, rather than rallying the better ideas of his followers, Bush's idea of leadership is to decide on his own, within is own heart, what is the best plan of action and to go forward, expecting everyone to follow.

Anyone else see or hear this?

Excellent Post.

Anonymous said...

Also here from Rachel Maddow (how much do we LOVE her!!!)

Bloody brilliant Mr. Larsen! Intelligent analysis, such a sight for sore eyes! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I think you need to re-examine Kelley's motives. He is a tenured professor at Notre Dame on leave of absence, likely to return; it is doubtful he is driven by trying to advance his Washinton career, as you hypothesize. More interestingly, given that Kelley is a know conservative, is the concept that they may have found the ideal "stealth" candidate - one who is in the Thomas/Scalia mold idealogically, but who would not draw the ire of the left as a more traditional candidate might.

Petty Larseny said...

Anonymous, I can't re-examine Kelley's motives because I've never examined them. I don't pretend to know what they are. My point in this post was that several apparent conflicts of interest should have kept Kelley from being the one to vet Miers before Kelley's potential motives even came under scrutiny. And while Kelley may be "likely to return" now, isn't it possible he'd be less likely to return if he were White House counsel? And even if he's not "driven" by advancing his Washington career, that doesn't mean he harbors no political aspirations whatsoever. You may be right that Miers is a stealth candidate, but if she is, she's lived something of an entire stealth life for six decades, during which she's displayed none of the activist zeal the Christian right so wanted.

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