Mediocre Miers

A friend emailed me a copy of David Brooks’ column today, in which he spotlights some of Harriet Miers inane prose (I would read the column myself, but the New York Times won’t let me):

Of all the words written about Harriet Miers, none are more disturbing than the ones she wrote herself. In the early 90’s, while she was president of the Texas bar association, Miers wrote a column called “President’s Opinion” for The Texas Bar Journal. It is the largest body of public writing we have from her, and sad to say, the quality of thought and writing doesn’t even rise to the level of pedestrian.

Of course, we have to make allowances for the fact that the first job of any association president is to not offend her members. Still, nothing excuses sentences like this:

“More and more, the intractable problems in our society have one answer: broad-based intolerance of unacceptable conditions and a commitment by many to fix problems.”

Or this: “We must end collective acceptance of inappropriate conduct and increase education in professionalism.”

Or this: “When consensus of diverse leadership can be achieved on issues of importance, the greatest impact can be achieved.”

Or passages like this: “An organization must also implement programs to fulfill strategies established through its goals and mission. Methods for evaluation of these strategies are a necessity. With the framework of mission, goals, strategies, programs, and methods for evaluation in place, a meaningful budgeting process can begin.”

Or, finally, this: “We have to understand and appreciate that achieving justice for all is in jeopardy before a call to arms to assist in obtaining support for the justice system will be effective.

Achieving the necessary understanding and appreciation of why the challenge is so important, we can then turn to the task of providing the much needed support.”

I don’t know if by mere quotation I can fully convey the relentless march of vapid abstractions that mark Miers’s prose. Nearly every idea is vague and depersonalized. Nearly every debatable point is elided.

It’s not that Miers didn’t attempt to tackle interesting subjects. She wrote about unequal access to the justice system, about the underrepresentation of minorities in the law and about whether pro bono work should be mandatory. But she presents no arguments or ideas, except the repetition of the bromide that bad things can be eliminated if people of good will come together to eliminate bad things.

Or as she puts it, “There is always a necessity to tend to a myriad of responsibilities on a number of cases as well as matters not directly related to the practice of law.” And yet, “Disciplining ourselves to provide the opportunity for thought and analysis has to rise again to a high priority.”

Throw aside ideology. Surely the threshold skill required of a Supreme Court justice is the ability to write clearly and argue incisively. Miers’s columns provide no evidence of that.

The Miers nomination has reopened the rift between conservatives and establishment Republicans. The conservative movement was founded upon the supposition that ideas have consequences. Conservatives have founded so many think tanks, magazines and organizations, like the Federalist Society, because they believe that you have to win arguments to win political power. They dream of Supreme Court justices capable of writing brilliant opinions that will reshape the battle of ideas.

Republicans, who these days are as likely to be members of the corporate establishment as the evangelical establishment, are more suspicious of intellectuals and ideas, and more likely to believe that politics is about deal-making, loyalty and power. You know you are in
establishment Republican circles when the conversation is bland but unifying. You know you are in conservative circles when it is interesting but divisive. Conservatives err by becoming irresponsible. Republicans tend to be blown about haplessly by forces they cannot understand.

For the first years of his presidency, George Bush healed the division between Republicans and conservatives by pursuing big conservative goals with ruthless Republican discipline. But Harriet Miers has shown no loyalty to conservative institutions like the Federalist Society.
Her loyalty has been to the person of the president, and her mental style seems to be Republicanism on stilts.

So conservatives are caught between loyalty to their ideas and loyalty to the president they admire. Most of them have come out against Miers — quietly or loudly. Establishment Republicans are displaying their natural loyalty to leadership. And Miers is caught in the vise between these two forces, a smart and good woman who has been put in a position where she cannot succeed.

My dad directs a faculty-juried contest of academic papers submitted by undergraduates. Usually he’ll have some students in his seminars evaluate the papers. Then he asks them, “which paper did you like the best?”; they often pick the eventual winner. When he asks them, “which paper do you think will win the contest?” they often pick another, poorly-written paper, a paper that uses the same kind of generalities and empty phrases we see above.

My point is that a lot of people think that kind of writing, because it’s incomprehensible, must be brilliant. I wonder if that’s partly why Bush put Miers on the top of his Supreme Court list.

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