Harriet E. Miers was the first person at the White House to learn that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was stepping down. And she was at President George W. Bush's side when he interviewed prospects, including his ultimate pick, Judge John G. Roberts Jr. As the President's lawyer and trusted friend, the 59-year-old Dallas attorney is at the center of Administration strategy on judicial nominations. Says former Texas Republican Chairman Fred Meyer: "The President doesn't make any big decisions without chatting with her."
But the same characteristics that endear Miers to Bush -- loyalty and discretion -- make her one of the capital's least-known Very Important Players. "She never seeks the limelight," says Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. "She's just extremely devoted to the President."
That's just what Bush wanted when he tapped Miers, a workaholic with a soft Texas drawl, to oversee the top-secret mission of choosing a replacement for O'Connor. Her task, associates say, was to give the President the pros and cons of each of the dozen or so contenders -- and find any skeletons in their closets. "Her job was to turn everything upside down to see what might fall out," says former White House deputy counsel David G. Leitch.
As Roberts moved up the list, Miers reported that he was less vulnerable to liberal attack than more prominent conservative judges. On the down side, some hard-right groups would have to be convinced that he was not a soft centrist. And on the day Roberts' selection was announced, Bush gave Miers the sensitive job of telling U.S. Fifth Circuit Court Judge Edith Brown Clement that she had been passed over.HIGH IMPACT, LOW KEY
Miers, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was a trailblazer in Lone Star legal circles. She was the first female partner at a major Texas law firm and the first woman to serve as president of the Dallas Bar Assn. and the State Bar of Texas. Her list of clients included Microsoft (), Walt Disney (), and Bush, whom she met socially in the 1980s. She joined his 1994 gubernatorial campaign as counsel -- and later represented him in a title dispute over his East Texas fishing cottage. Governor Bush rewarded her by giving her the high-impact job of cleaning up the scandal-tarred Texas Lottery Commission.
Miers followed Bush to D.C. and was assigned one of the most sensitive jobs in the White House: staff secretary, responsible for reviewing every piece of paper that crosses the President's desk. She took the counsel's spot when Alberto R. Gonzales was promoted to Attorney General. In the first few months on the job, she was a key player in the developing strategy for the Administration's showdown with Senate Democrats over the stalled judicial nominations and will be the point person on future court openings.
Despite her influence, friends say Miers is shy and uncomfortable with small talk. Several colleagues from her days on the Dallas city council describe her as "a loner." Democrats complain that Miers did not visit the Senate Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, during her first six months on the job. After learning of the perceived slight, Miers trekked to the Hill in late June to meet Leahy and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
A stickler for detail, Miers doesn't have much time for social calls. White House colleagues say that she arrives for work as early as 4:30 a.m. and often departs after 10 p.m., leaving little time for her favorite diversions -- tennis, running, and opera. But Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) remembers persuading Miers to see Pl?cido Domingo sing Wagner. "I went to sleep twice," Hutchison recalls. "She never even bobbed her head -- and she had come to work at 6:00 that morning."
Hutchison says she expects Miers will someday have even more power. If Bush has the opportunity to make additional Supreme Court nominations, "she will definitely be on the short list," predicts the Texas senator. If so, Bush may be hard-pressed to find someone to match her skills as a vetter. By Richard S. Dunham in Washington