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The President's 'Pit Bull'

Though said to be shy, the nominee is described as tenacious in her defense of Bush.

October 04, 2005|Richard A. Serrano and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — 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.

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.

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."

"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.

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