Seeking to quell unrest on his conservative flank, President Bush mounted a defense Tuesday of Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers, insisting that his friend and former personal lawyer was “the best person I could find” for the job.
“I can understand people not knowing Harriet. She hasn’t been one of these publicity hounds,” Bush said during a Rose Garden news conference, his first in more than four months. “She’s been somebody who just quietly does her job. But when she does it, she performs, you see.”
Asked whether she was the most qualified person in the country to serve on the high court, Bush was blunt: “Yes. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have” nominated her.
Bush’s choice of Miers has -- at least at first -- raised more hackles within his own party’s ranks than with Democrats, a rare occurrence during his years in the White House.
Still, with most Republican senators expressing confidence in the president’s pick -- and Democrats expressing relief that Bush did not choose someone more flamboyantly conservative -- her confirmation appears on track, barring unforeseen developments.
In another rarity for the president, he acknowledged that he responded to the views of senators, including Democrats, in making his choice.
He even quoted the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who had urged the selection of a nominee from outside the “judicial monastery.”
“I actually listen to senators when they bring forth ideas,” Bush said. “And one of the most interesting ideas I heard was, ‘Why don’t you pick somebody who hasn’t been a judge? Why don’t you reach outside?’ And so, recognizing that Harriet will bring not only expertise, but a fresh approach, I nominated her.”
Miers has been a trusted aide to Bush for years. She handled his personal legal affairs while he was governor of Texas in the mid-1990s. She has been a member of his staff since he became president in 2001 and this year was appointed White House counsel.
Bush repeated that he hopes the Senate can vote on Miers’ nomination before the Thanksgiving holiday. But he does not plan to release documents to senators involving her work at the White House, saying that would violate executive privilege.
“I just can’t tell you how important it is for us to guard executive privilege in order for there to be crisp decision-making in the White House,” Bush said.
Miers began her Capitol Hill courtesy calls Tuesday with visits to three key Republicans -- Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. All are members of the Judiciary Committee, which will conduct hearings on her nomination.
“A lot of my fellow conservatives are concerned, but they don’t know her as I do,” Hatch said after meeting with Miers. “She’s going to basically do what the president thinks she should and that is be a strict constructionist” of the Constitution.
But conservatives, including a few on Capitol Hill, continued to express the reservation that Miers has no track record on core conservative issues, such as opposing abortion and gay marriage.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a Judiciary Committee member and key abortion opponent, said his attitude toward Miers was “trust, but verify.”
“I am hopeful that Ms. Miers will be, as President Bush promised, a qualified nominee in the mold of Justices [Antonin] Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas who will strictly interpret the law and will not create law,” Brownback said in a statement. “I am not yet confident that Ms. Miers has a proven track record, and I look forward to having these questions answered.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, an influential Christian political group, declined to endorse Miers for a second day.
In a message to supporters, he cited her responses to questions by a gay rights group in the 1980s, saying she supported gays who sought to serve on public commissions even though she did not support ending a Texas law, since overturned, that banned gay sex.
“President Bush has earned a substantial measure of trust and confidence from pro-life, pro-family Americans. He has shown every indication that he understands the crucial role we played in returning him to the White House less than a year ago,” Perkins said.
But he added, “I have a concern that Miss Miers was helping to legitimize the drive of homosexual organizations for power and influence over our public policies.”
The subject of Miers dominated the 55-minute news conference, with Bush repeatedly listing her accomplishments and arguing that his supporters should trust him because he knows her so well.
“You’ve got to understand -- because of our closeness, I know the character of the person,” Bush said.
He ducked a question about the example of Justice David H. Souter, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by the president’s father, George H.W. Bush. Conservatives frequently complain that Souter was a “stealth” nominee who was thought to be a conservative but over time became a stalwart member of the court’s liberal wing.
“You’re trying to get me in trouble with my father,” Bush parried when asked whether the choice of Souter was a mistake.
He also sidestepped questions about whether he and Miers ever discussed her views on abortion, saying instead that he had “no litmus test” for the nomination. “In my interviews with any judge, I never ask their personal opinion on the subject of abortion,” Bush said.
Asked if the subject had come up in more informal conversation, he said, “Not to my recollection have I ever sat down with her.”
Behind the scenes, White House officials have been talking to social conservatives, trying to convince them that Miers is a better choice than they might have thought initially. Several issued qualified expressions of support Tuesday.
“If the president trusts Harriet Miers to fulfill his campaign promises to the American people, then I trust Harriet Miers until I am given compelling evidence to the contrary,” said Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Times staff writers Mary Curtius and Edwin Chen contributed to this report.