Bush should have looked harder

October 18, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- When first lady Laura Bush was asked on NBC's Today if she detected sexism in the rising criticism of the Harriet Miers nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, her answer must have brought smiles to those whom Rush Limbaugh once tagged as "femi-Nazis."

"I think that's possible," the first lady said.

Instantly she bonded, whether she knew it or not, with Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who also tagged Ms. Miers' critics with the S-word.

Yet one does not have to be a male chauvinist piggy to question whether a man would have fared any better if he had Ms. Miers' meager judicial experience, nonexistent scholarly work and lack of an ideological record beyond a friendship with President Bush that's "thisclose."

Male nominees have had their rM-isumM-is challenged too. And worse. President Richard Nixon's nominee G. Harrold Carswell was criticized as having been a "mediocre judge," and he was defeated.

Ms. Miers is, indeed "an extraordinarily accomplished woman" who has "broken the glass ceiling," as Mrs. Bush observed. But Ms. Miers' most passionate critics (George Will, Patrick J. Buchanan, William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly and Ann Coulter, just for starters) have fulminated from the president's own political base.

In criticizing Ms. Miers, the right is really criticizing Mr. Bush. After struggling more than 30 years to tilt the Supreme Court rightward, many conservative elites see defeat being snatched out of the jaws of their victory. .

Nothing personal, Ms. Miers. It's politics. The left might have howled but the right hardly would have raised a peep had Mr. Bush chosen a female lawyer with a reputation for reliably conservative views and a relish for arguing. And, if anyone called Justice Clarence Thomas a quota hire, it wasn't conservatives. The first President Bush called him "the best-qualified lawyer" in the country, and conservatives heard the hidden message: "This is the best-qualified black conservative lawyer I've been able to find, so please don't make me look again."

But if sexism against Ms. Miers is hard to find in her critics, sexism in her favor is quite easy to find in her chief patron, the president. Evidence comes from no less than James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a nationwide network of conservative Christian media and organizations important to Mr. Bush's base. Recounting the special early briefing he received from presidential adviser Karl Rove, Mr. Dobson confirmed what most people already had guessed: The White House limited its list of potential justices to women.

Mr. Rove "made it clear that the president was looking for a certain kind of candidate, namely a woman to replace Justice [Sandra Day] O'Connor," said Mr. Dobson on his national radio program. "And you can imagine what that did to the short list. That ... may have cut it by 80 percent right there."

All of which sounds like the sort of practice that conservatives usually condemn as a "quota," unless it is they who are doing it. Then they call it "outreach."

Looking beyond the usual array of qualified guys to find a qualified woman to fill the seat being vacated by the Supreme Court's first female justice does not make Mr. Bush a bad person.

Frankly, I prefer the succinct label I once heard Sen. Christopher J. Dodd use for affirmative action: "Look harder."

Outreach is good. I only wish that the Bush administration would be more straightforward about it. Mr. Bush looked hard for a woman, but not hard enough. Now Team Bush seems to be asking us to give Harriet Miers a break precisely because she's a woman.

That ranks as a double-barrel insult.

It further inflames the base with its S-word implications and insults the rest of us by implying that quality must be sacrificed in order to have diversity. In fact, you can have both, if you look harder.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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