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The President’s ‘Pit Bull’

Times Staff Writers

From the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency, his professional life has been so closely intertwined with Harriet Miers’ that some White House insiders jokingly refer to her as the president’s “work wife.” And she was the lawyer whom Bush trusted to handle some of his most sensitive and important tasks, even before he entered the Oval Office.

Born and raised in Dallas, educated at Southern Methodist University, a star corporate litigator and deeply involved in her evangelical Christian church, Harriet Ellan Miers is a child of Texas, and her roots there seem to run parallel to those of the president who nominated her to the Supreme Court.

As governor of Texas, Bush chose her to take over a financially troubled state lottery commission. When questions arose in the 2000 presidential campaign about favoritism in the Texas Air National Guard, Bush tapped Miers to assess the dimensions of the problem.

After they left Texas for Washington following the 2000 presidential election, Miers assumed such an insider role that in 2001 it was she who handed Bush the crucial “presidential daily briefing” hinting at terrorist plots against America just a month before the Sept. 11 attacks.

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And this year it was Miers who brought word to the president that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was retiring, it was Miers who interviewed potential successors and told others they were passed over, and Miers who ended up winning the nomination herself.

Bush has called her “a pit bull in size 6 shoes.” Presenting her with a legal award, he quipped that “when it comes to a cross-examination, she can fillet better than Mrs. Paul.” During visits to the president’s ranch near Crawford, Texas, she has been known to grab a chain saw and help clear brush.

Yet for all her skills as a lawyer and trusted aide, Miers is relatively little known outside her native Texas and the gates of the White House. A woman of few words who has been described by friends as personally shy, she has been outspoken only in her zealous defense of the president who has brought her to the pinnacle of a career in the law. Though she has been a highly successful corporate litigator in one of the leading law firms in Texas and done several turns in public service, she seems to have left few clues to her personal philosophy.

That could be a formidable advantage as Miers faces the coming struggle for confirmation as successor to O’Connor. Miers’ personal reticence and lack of a detailed public record may make her a difficult target for Democrats to hit.

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But what is known of her life and her career indicates that she shares many of the values of the president who turned his back on his Eastern antecedents and Yale-Harvard education to embrace the culture of his adopted state.

That in turn suggests that, when it comes to forming opinions, Miers may have little in common with O’Connor, who was appointed by President Reagan and turned out to be a closet moderate who sometimes rejected conservative positions.

Miers was born in Dallas in August 1945, just less than a year before Bush. The fourth of five children, she was a blond-haired “perfect angel,” as her now 93-year-old mother, Sally Miers, recalls. In high school, she won a varsity letter on the girls’ tennis team but is remembered as socially awkward.

At SMU, Miers studied mathematics. For a while she saw herself becoming a doctor. When her father, Harris Miers, suffered a debilitating stroke, however, she nearly had to drop out of college, saved only when SMU offered a package of scholarships, financial aid and work-study.

By 1970, she not only had her math degree but a diploma from the law school as well.

Karrin Torgerson, a litigation partner in Dallas who later served as her White House deputy, said she knew exactly what Bush meant when he described her friend and boss as a pit bull.

“What he’s trying to say is that she has always been tenacious in her representation of her client, whether that client be a firm or the president of the United States,” Torgerson said.

Outside of the office, however, Miers is a “kind and charitable woman,” Torgerson said, adding that this was true professionally -- she has done extensive pro bono work -- and personally -- “she never misses a birthday.”

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“If it means she’s out at 1 a.m. looking for a gift, she will do that,” Torgerson said.

In the White House, Miers routinely works 17-hour days. “She is one of those rare people who does not appear to require sleep,” Torgerson said.

Miers also has had a quiet and lasting companionship with Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan L. Hecht, who was first elected to the state’s highest court for civil affairs in 1988.

Before his close friend and protegee Priscilla Owen narrowly won confirmation to the federal bench this year, Hecht and Owen were the anchors of the conservative wing of the state Supreme Court, which consists entirely of Republicans.

Though Hecht has long rejected attempts to ascribe political labels to factions of the Supreme Court, his positions on everything from abortion to business law have made him a hero to social and religious conservatives. (The converse is also true; his campaign slogan of “Hecht Yes!” was once parodied by a political action committee called “Hecht No!”) He, too, attended SMU law school, though he and Miers do not appear to have known each other well until 1975.

That was when she interviewed him for a position at Locke, Purnell, Boren, Laney & Neely, a powerful Dallas firm that, after changes in management and a 1999 merger, became Locke Liddell & Sapp.

Because Hecht has been a judge for 25 years, his positions on political and social issues are far better known than those of Miers.

However, friends say the two share a passion; they are both, for instance, fierce advocates of “tort reform,” the movement to limit lawsuits and large liability judgments, especially against corporations.

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They also have been business associates on occasion. In 1993, Hecht had to recuse himself from a Texas Supreme Court case involving legal representation because Miers was one of the parties to the suit. At the time, the Texas Ethics Commission had listed Miers as a guarantor of a loan made to Hecht.

They have attended numerous events together, such as Texas state bar association gatherings. Both were invited by Bush to stay with him at Camp David last year. They often jogged together. And both have long been members and taught Sunday school at Valley View Christian Church, an evangelical pastorate in the Dallas area.

Barry McCarty, lead minister at Valley View, described it as a “conservative, Bible-based, evangelical church.” Valley View has a congregation of about 1,200, he said, and rejects the label of “fundamentalist.”

Miers, McCarty said, frequently visits the church when she returns to Dallas on weekends, which she does with some regularity to visit her brothers and her ailing mother. She can often be found at the Sunday school sessions taught by Hecht, he said.

“She is a gracious, Christian lady,” McCarty said. “There is a biblical word that I think describes Harriet, and it doesn’t always mean what people think it means. It is the word ‘meek.’ I think she exhibits that very positive quality of meekness, which I would define as ‘strength under control.’ ”

Her climb to power and influence came slowly.

While a law student, she clerked one summer for famous defense lawyer Melvin Belli in Northern California. After graduating from SMU, she clerked for U.S. District Judge Joe E. Estes, and in 1972 she was the first woman hired at the Locke Purnell Rain Harrell law firm. Fourteen years later, her colleagues elected her the first female president of the firm, then numbering 200 lawyers.

Her clients included Microsoft Corp. and Walt Disney Co., but Miers was also busy in civic affairs. In 1985 she was chosen as the first female president of the Dallas Bar Assn. In 1992, she was selected the first female president of the State Bar of Texas.

While she was at the helm of the state bar, the American Bar Assn. endorsed the right to abortion as the law of the land -- a position she challenged, if only to complain that if the national bar was going to take a position on such a politically volatile issue, the entire membership should be allowed a voice in the matter.

Miers also served two years as a member of the Dallas City Council, from 1989 to 1991, a tumultuous period for what is now the nation’s ninth-largest city.

The city’s African American community, mostly concentrated in south Dallas, felt long relegated to second-class status. Blacks fought for, and won, a system of government known as the “14-1" system: 14 City Council members elected in districts and a mayor elected citywide.

Miers was one of the last council members under the old system, where all served at-large. It was a sensitive time in the city, and she was criticized as being aloof and combative. But Councilman Ron Natinsky said that was because she declined, unlike some on the council, to stake out a “radical” position.

“She is what she is,” Natinsky said. “She was one of those unseen, methodical forces that was not a headline-seeker. If you rattled off some of the names on the City Council during that time and then got to Harriet Miers, a lot of people would say: ‘Who?’ Yet she was actually a driving force in keeping the council going.”

By 1994 she had found a role that could not be overlooked: general counsel for the transition team of Gov.-elect George W. Bush. A year later he sent her to run the Texas Lottery Commission, a voluntary public service position where her job was to clean up its finances.

She stayed on for five years, and under her watch came a series of legal settlements, two fired executive directors, and lagging sales and public interest in the lottery. The lottery also became increasingly politicized during her reign, several Texas officials said.

In 1997 she led a campaign to fire Executive Director Nora Linares after it was revealed that Linares’ boyfriend had worked for the lottery’s primary contractor, known as Gtech. Linares was later exonerated, but not before she won a $750,000 settlement from Gtech.

Randall “Buck” Wood, the Austin lawyer who represented Linares, said the dispute over Linares’ tenure was as much about power as it was about Linares’ relationship with Gtech. Historically, the executive director had played the most prominent role in overseeing the lottery; Miers had sought to change that.

“Harriet wanted to run the Lottery Commission. Harriet likes to run everything she gets near,” Wood said. “She is very driven. She may be wrong, but she is never in doubt.... She is a control freak.”

When Bush was elected president in 2000, Miers was named his assistant and staff secretary. She read and approved virtually every piece of paper that crossed his desk. She later was promoted to assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff, and in February became White House counsel.

Now she must obtain Senate confirmation, and there looms the question of whether she will turn out to be a political disappointment for conservatives, like O’Connor or Justice David Souter, whom President George H.W. Bush nominated only to see moderate to liberal opinions from him.

Not likely, some White House veterans say.

“The first President Bush was relying on the assessments of others,” said Brad Berenson, who worked in the first Bush White House counsel’s office.

But this time, Berenson said, this President Bush “has worked with Harriet for more than a decade. He is relying on his own judgment and opinion.”

Serrano reported from Washington, Gold from Texas. Times staff writers David G. Savage and Maura Reynolds in Washington and Henry Weinstein in Los Angeles and researcher Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this report.


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