The president and the 'mother hen' nominee

It took George W. Bush and Karl Rove about seven years – not counting a decade of earlier spadework by Rove – to gather in their hands the many strains of conservatism and to use that accumulated power to steer themselves into two White House terms. But now the reins that they so assiduously grasped have fallen, one by one, from their grip. Like trail hands on a runaway stagecoach in a cowboy movie, they need a hero to gallop alongside, leap aboard, and save them from careening into the creek.

It doesn’t look as though Harriet Miers is that person.

To mix my movie metaphors, the selection of Miers reminds me of the scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” As the astronauts unplug the memory chips in the brain of Hal the Computer, the machine returns to its roots, so to speak, plaintively singing the first song it was taught, “Daisy Bell.” Miers is Bush singing “Daisy Bell.”

Here is an alternative theory. It looks to many White House observers as if Bush was operating pretty much alone on this pick. Those who know the Bush family are harking back to 1988 when George H. W. Bush -- determined to show he can make political decision without the crutch of James Baker -- came up with Dan Quayle as his running mate.  Miers is obviously no Dan Quayle, at least on the academic front, but this Bush may have been eager to show that he can make a pick of his own in a crisis atmosphere.

Bush always has had a habit of surrounding himself with what he calls “mother hens.” Miers is one of them. Others, in approximate order of their time of prime service, include Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, Karen Hughes, Condi Rice and Frances Townsend. These women are of a type: independent, athletic, forceful and not quite traditional by the old standards of the Establishment.

Miers specific job, originally – meaning back in 1993 – was to “mother hen” Bush on personal legal matters. You can’t overstate how important this is, or was. At the time, Bush had just gotten rich from the sale of his interest in the Texas Rangers, and he was about to step onto the stage by running for governor of Texas.

There were Matters: the fishing club Bush was part of, that had had run-ins with locals and employees; murky questions about Bush’s military service; and even – though it’s not clear what Miers knew about this at the time – a drunk-driving arrest from long ago.

She handled everything well, by all accounts, and displayed the quality Bush admires most: the ability to protect him, make problems disappear and make him look good – all while keeping your mouth shut.

Miers also appeals to Bush because she comes from what, for him, is a comfortably specific place and time: the Dallas of the late 80s and early 90s, which had become his home after years of doing nothing in particular in various other parts of Texas.

The Highland Park and University Park areas of the city, just north of downtown, are an appealing part of the South — partaking of the can-do Texas entrepreneurial energy of Texas, but meshing it with cultural sophistication, tolerance and the presence of Southern Methodist University.

SMU is a cultural signpost – in the Bible Belt but not quite of it; a patch of Ivy for the gifted and/or the well-to-do. Miers, Hughes and Laura Bush are all SMU alumnae. (In the 2000 campaign, Bush declined an invitation to an event in New Hampshire. The real reason was to avoid giving Sen. John McCain a platform; the excuse was that Bush needed to attend a ceremony at SMU honoring Laura. Everybody else laughed at the excuse. But knowing them, and the neighborhood, I could see how they thought it was convincing.)

Then there is Miers’ born-again story. Dedicated to her work, professionally accomplished, she reached middle age with a Christian background but no fervent faith, according to her friends. Her friend took her to an evangelical mega-church far north of Highland Park, in the rapidly growing northern suburbs of Dallas. And it is at the Valley View Christian Church that she found Christ in earnest. It’s a story that Bush understands, because he lived it.

But it is the sweep of the story that has some Christian conservatives worried – the Highland Park and University Park part. That’s the part that allowed her, maybe even compelled her out a sense of decency and duty, to attend a gay-rights meeting when she was running for Dallas City Council. Miers didn’t seek the group’s endorsement (and didn’t get it.) She refused to agree that Texas’s anti-sodomy law should be repealed, as the Supreme Court eventually said it should.

But she went, and said she favored civil rights for gays, and said that AIDs was a serious problem. All of which was consistent with her Dallas — and, the truth be told -- with Bush’s ideas.