Laura and Harriet

Are the nominee’s critics sexist? Get serious.

Never cry sexism

Yesterday, the first lady tried to improve Harriet Miers’ confirmation chances by charging that some of the nominee’s critics were guilty of sexism. The powerful accusation may count in some quarters as an answer to legitimate criticism, just as it sometimes did when it was leveled at Hillary Clinton’s antagonists. But crying discrimination isn’t going to help Harriet Miers, both because there isn’t much truth to it, and because to the extent it’s a factor, it’s coming from the guy who appointed her.

The White House should have stuck with claiming that Miers’ foes were snobs and elitists. At least that had the advantage of being true: Many of the most outspoken opponents of the nomination are intellectuals, who are elitists almost by definition. The Bush side could make other plausible complaints about Miers’ critics: that some in the Senate are opportunistically looking for ways to draw attention to themselves, and that those on the religious right are being impertinent and fussy, demanding a second dessert after being served the treat of John Roberts. But sexist? It seems like the last desperate act of a team whose nominee is in trouble.

Dr. James Dobson, who got a special early briefing from Karl Rove on the pick, has confirmed what we already knew: The White House limited the field of potential choices to women. In ordinary English, that is called a quota. This admission of truth, which Bush’s father never made about Clarence Thomas, makes it hard for the president to rebut criticism that Miers is not the most qualified person for the job. We know for a fact that half of humanity—and a good deal more than half of the federal bench—was deemed ineligible to be chosen at the outset. I thought conservatives like the president believed that women could withstand open competition? Instead, Bush has subjected Miers to what he calls the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Isn’t the pounding Miers is taking proof that her accusers are treating her like one of the boys? Questioning her scant record isn’t code for worries about her toughness or brainpower. Arguing that she’s a crony isn’t the same as saying she should have taken up a more traditionally feminine career or distinguished herself as a wife and mother. Wondering whether she’s really the best nonjudge lawyer in the land isn’t a dodge at all, given how little looking the White House seems to have done for any such alternative of any gender.

Would critics be raising similar questions if Miers were a man? In fact, many Republicans were far harsher on Dan Quayle in his day, calling him a lightweight mimbo for a job that requires considerably less mental wattage.

To cover Miers’ weaknesses, the White House has tried to turn her into a Super Sister. “I know how many times she’s broken the glass ceiling, herself,” Laura Bush said yesterday. “She’s a role model for young women around the country.” This bothers conservative career women even more than the lazy sexism charge. Miers has blazed forward into previously all-male territory, that’s for sure. But it’s condescending when the future Harriet Mierses of the world are asked to look up to her because of the positions she held. They should respect her for the positions she took and the tough calls she made. Appealing to women as potential victims of sexism, as opposed to responding the way the White House would on behalf of a male nominee, by stressing qualifications and views, is itself a bit sexist.

The president, who knows Miers so well and who has so often boasted about how tough she is, could offer some help here. Bush needs to rustle up one lean anecdote about her leadership, judicial philosophy, or some instance where she lived up to the image he’s pushed. Instead, he repeats her résumé and slightly patronizes her. Bush has always had trouble getting the gender thing right with Miers. When he promotes her, he’s always patting her on the back in a way that undermines the case he’s making. “She looks so petite and, well, harmless. But put her on your case,” Bush said once before introducing her to a lunch crowd, “and she becomes a pit bull in size 6 shoes.” Another time he boasted, “When it comes to a cross-examination, she can fillet better than Mrs. Paul.” When you protest that much in public, it reinforces the underlying stereotype that Miers needs a lift.

Into the vacuum where her scholarly writing or opinions should be have blown Miers’ glowing notes to her patron over the years. They make her seem more prone to nuzzle than act hard-nosed. Let’s be clear: Man was the first gender to perfect sucking up. You’ve never seen true sycophancy until you’ve watched a group of grown men talk about sports or politics around George W. Bush. All the fast breathing and excited interjections … it’s downright embarrassing. But the groveling notes, as someone who worked with her in the White House told me, back up what all those alleged sexists quickly discerned: that Miers may be a solid ally and a kind friend more than the leader or the path-breaker Bush has been touting.

Each day brings another bout of attacks from the right. Today, a report suggests that the majority of the lawyers for the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are arrayed against Miers. President Bush will not give in to the increasing calls to withdraw her nomination. It’s not in his DNA to back down from a fight. Miers could withdraw herself, but that would only confirm another sexist stereotype: that when it comes to politics, women can’t handle the pressure.