A Love That Was Benched by Their Careers

Times Staff Writers

He was a country boy who grew up on a wheat farm, she a city girl who played on her high school tennis team.

The lives of Nathan Hecht and Harriet E. Miers began to intertwine in the early 1970s, shortly after they finished law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Soon, they were rising stars at the same law firm, and their lives seemed to be converging in every way. They were earnest, ambitious and increasingly affectionate with one another. Friends thought they would get married.

Instead, for 30 years, Hecht and Miers -- President Bush's Supreme Court nominee -- have nurtured a kinship that has entranced and confounded their closest friends. They are traditional conservatives content in a modern, nontraditional relationship, one that leaves plenty of time for their true love, their work, to take center stage.

Romantic at times, the relationship has played an important role in their ascent to power -- she as White House counsel, he as a justice of the Texas Supreme Court, where he has served for 15 years.

"I think they thought seriously about getting married," said Dallas commercial litigation attorney Brady Sparks, who lived across the hall from Hecht in law school and has been friends with Hecht and Miers ever since. "They both decided that it just wasn't in the cards for the agenda they both wanted, and that was to do about three lifetimes worth of work in one lifetime."

The Rev. Ron Key, their pastor, said God called him to preach, not to play matchmaker. He said that in his long career as a minister, theirs was the only relationship that had ever tempted him to intervene.

"It's been great to watch -- and a little puzzling sometimes," Key said. "Their relationship has been such a special one. Sometimes I think they wanted to protect how special it was by not getting married."

While Miers, 60, has holed up in Washington in recent days, making the rounds of senators but declining to speak about her nomination in public, Hecht, 55, has become her de facto spokesman.

He has long been one of the most conservative members of the Texas Supreme Court, and Bush's supporters have encouraged him to talk about Miers, largely in an effort to assuage conservatives who remain unconvinced that she is a stalwart ally.

He has spoken passionately to reporters and advocacy groups about her qualifications for the court -- and about her decision to become a born-again Christian and her opposition to abortion.

But increasingly, as it has become clear that Miers' stated record on social issues is thin, and as the public has clamored for clues to her political leanings, the questions have turned to their relationship. Only then does the loquacious Hecht begin to demur.

"We are good, close friends," he said Friday. "And we have been for all these years. We go to dinner. We go to the movies two or three times a year. We talk. And that's the best way to describe it. We are not dating. We are not seeing each other romantically. Not currently."

Hecht declined to discuss their relationship in much detail, though he said that the public should not conclude, based on their lofty positions, that they stay up all night debating heady legal issues.

"We don't dwell much on the reverse Commerce Clause," Hecht said with a laugh, referring to an arcane debate among some lawyers over the right of Congress to regulate interstate commerce and other activity. "Maybe that says something about our shallowness."

Some of their associates and friends bristle at the suggestion that their romantic life has become a matter of public discussion and, in particular, at the suggestion that Miers might have sacrificed love for her career.

"Why hasn't she ever gotten married? I don't know the answer to that," said Jerry Clements, a woman who worked with Miers at Locke Liddell & Sapp, the law firm where Miers spent most of her career. "If this was a man, no one would ask that question."

But Sharon Baird, a friend of Miers since they both played on the tennis team at Hillcrest High in Dallas, called Miers' life decisions "very European."

Europeans "put a lot of emphasis on love and not so much on marriage," she said. "It's a New Age thing. Much like Oprah. She never married either."

Miers and Hecht became friends in 1975 after she took him out to dinner while he was interviewing for a job with Locke, Purnell, Boren, Laney & Neely, the Dallas firm that, after changes in management and a 1999 merger, became Locke Liddell & Sapp.

They spent a considerable amount of time at the north Dallas trailer home of Key, who was then a young pastor at Hecht's church, Valley View Christian. Key's wife, Kaycia, often made pineapple upside-down cake, sometimes at 1 a.m., after the lawyers had put in another long day in the office.

"They were very friendly -- affectionate, close to each other," Sparks said.

Both have dated other people over the years.

Hecht has been linked to Priscilla Owen, the controversial federal appellate judge who is his protege and close friend and recently served on the Texas Supreme Court with him.

Miers was engaged briefly in the 1970s to Jim Martin, a law school classmate and, today, a Dallas attorney. They dated for two years, taking a road trip to Big Bend National Park in West Texas and to Los Angeles.

"She was a lot of fun," he said. "Good sense of humor. Cute. She was athletic. She was a very good tennis player, and we played a lot of tennis. She's just a very good sort of regular person. No airs about her."

One night, after another grueling workday, they met for a late meal at a Denny's restaurant. Over a plate of eggs over easy and ham, they broke it off.

"Our time wasn't our own," he said. "She's a very warm and caring person and would make someone a wonderful wife. It's just that she's extremely focused on her career. In that context, she has never had enough time to carve out a significant relationship that would take a great deal of time."

Over the years, as Hecht and Miers became frequent companions at formal dinners, bar association events, fundraisers and the like, their friendship played an important role in shaping their public life.

In January 1989, for instance, Hecht escorted Miers to an Austin dinner, an annual affair held for legislators and other movers and shakers. There, he introduced her to Bush, whose father had just been inaugurated president. Miers and Bush hit it off; within a few years, she was his personal attorney and an influential member of his inner circle.

It was Hecht, too, who brought Miers to the evangelical church that appears to have played a significant role in shaping her social positions and her evolution from a political moderate to a conservative.

Miers, in turn, has frequently given Hecht advice during his political campaigns, he said; Texas judges are elected, for the most part.

There have been moments, friends say, when Miers has expressed sadness that she has never been married or had children.

Rena Pederson, a longtime friend of Miers', called the relationship with Hecht "Shakespearean" -- more tragic than romantic.

"People always want to know why they didn't marry. But they just missed their wave," she said. "It was one of those things that happens sometimes to couples. They really care about each other, but the timing just doesn't work out."

Hecht said he had talked to Miers every day since her nomination was announced.

"I don't want to let them pound on her too much," he said. "I just want to make sure she's doing OK."

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