Cronyism as a core value

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OF ALL THE despondent conservative reactions to Harriet E. Miers’ Supreme Court nomination, my favorite came from National Review editor Rich Lowry, who quoted a source he described as a “very pro-Bush legal type.” The source complained that Miers is “not even second rate, but third rate,” and proceeded to despair that “a crony at FEMA is one thing, but on the high court it’s something else entirely.”

The Supreme Court, you see, is important. What bad could come of having a crony at FEMA? Oh, right.

The conservative schism over the Miers nomination has opened an interesting intellectual fault line on the right. Conservatives have long found cultural populism to be one of the most effective weapons in their arsenal. When you’re stuck defending the interests of the super-rich, it’s quite useful to position yourself against the educated snobs and phonies.


For most conservatives, this is a useful cynical ploy, one that helped elect President Bush twice. But Bush actually believes it.

Unsurprisingly, those Republicans who support Miers have gone to this well once again. GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Some have criticized the president because he did not select an Ivy League-credentialed federal appeals court judge.” Republican spinner Ed Gillespie assailed critics for their “elitism.”

I suppose it is elitism of a sort to prefer Supreme Court justices who have experience with constitutional law, or have contributed to a law review, or were at least considered outstanding in some way. Miers does not exactly fit the bill.

One former White House colleague, David Kuo, wrote: “When she was elevated from staff secretary to deputy chief of staff for policy, everyone was shocked. She didn’t know policy.” (He actually said this in the course of defending Miers!) Another former colleague, David Frum, reported that Miers once told him that Bush was the most brilliant man she had ever met.

Why did Bush select her? Because Miers has a personal rapport with the president, having known him from serving as his personal lawyer before following him to the White House.

Most presidents would want their cronies to have some reasonably impressive legal credentials before ascending to the high court. But Bush seems to harbor a principled disdain for meritocracy. Cronyism is one of his core values.


In a wonderful 2000 New Yorker profile, Nicholas Lemann wrote that Bush attended Yale at the time its admissions policies were being transformed. Traditionally, it had been dominated by prep school alumni, whether or not they had the best grades. Traditionalists said this emphasized good character above mere book smarts. In practice, it resulted in affirmative action for children of the WASP elite. Andover, Bush’s alma mater, usually sent at least three dozen graduates to Yale every year.

Under the new admissions criteria implemented just after Bush arrived at Yale, academic success counted for more, opening the doors to more bright public school graduates. This revolution opened a cultural rift between the Old Yale and the New Yale. Bush, an easygoing, fraternity-belonging, prep-school alum of modest achievements, embodied the Old Yale. He is said to have burned with resentment toward the striving meritocrats.

The way Bush talks about Miers calls to mind the way Old Yalies talked about people such as Bush. He downplays her lack of formal achievements and emphasizes her good character. (John G. Roberts Jr., also got on well with Bush, and that must have overcome his obvious brilliance.)

Bush’s own successes can all be traced back to knowing powerful people. He failed repeatedly as an oilman, but his father’s friends continuously lent him money anyway, eventually giving him a stake in the Texas Rangers, which he leveraged into the governorship of Texas, which he leveraged into the presidency.

The criticisms that many of us made of Bush in 2000 are the same criticisms conservatives are making of Miers today. Bush looks at Miers and probably sees someone like himself.