Bush And His Cronies

Critics are citing the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court as another example of President Bush’s predilection toward appointing pals and associates to some of the highest positions in the U.S. government.

When Bush announced his choice Monday, he acknowledged that he has known and been friends with Miers, the White House counsel, for more than a decade.

“I know her heart. I know her character,” Bush said.

But Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., characterized Miers as “a Bush crony from the inner workings of a right-wing White House” and compared the president’s Supreme Court nomination to the appointment of the much-maligned Michael Brown to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The vacancy on the Supreme Court is not some plum ambassadorial post where America will look the other way when the president appoints a friend,” Wexler said. “It is closer to a position like heading FEMA where the most important prerequisites are experience, capability and honesty.”

The administration has expended considerable energy rejecting claims that the Miers appointment is another example of Bush cronyism _ appointing friends to a lofty position regardless of their capabilities.

Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on a handful of conservative radio-talk shows this week to insist that cronyism was not involved in the Miers choice. Scott McClellan, the president’s press secretary, rejected the notion that Bush simply was rewarding a friend, asserting, “The president knows her well. He has known her for some time now. But the decision was based on who was the best person to fill this vacancy. And she has the qualifications and experience needed to do an outstanding job on the United States Supreme Court, and that’s why the president selected her.”

Bush personally dismissed charges of cronyism, maintaining that Miers is “the best person I could find.”

“I know her well enough to be able to say that she’s not going to change _ that 20 years from now she’ll be the same person, with the same philosophy that she is today,” Bush said Tuesday during a nationally televised press conference from the White House Rose Garden. “She’ll have more experience, she’ll have been a judge, but nevertheless, her philosophy won’t change.”

White House cronyism is a time-honored political practice that history shows has not always worked to the benefit of the president or the republic. Warren G. Harding, generally considered the worst president of the 20th century before Richard Nixon usurped that title, surrounded himself with poker-playing buddies and encountered scandal after scandal.

In 1946, Harry Truman appointed his poker-playing pal, Treasury Secretary Fred Vinson, to serve as chief justice. Vinson proved so inept that, when he died in office seven years later, fellow Justice Felix Frankfurter was moved to say, “This is the first indication that I have ever had that there is a God.”

Instances of White House cronyism appeared to be on the wane before, in the view of critics, Bush revived the practice. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, brought relatively few friends and intimates north when he was elected in 1992. One exception, ironically, was James Lee Witt, who was named to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency and retrospectively viewed as one of Clinton’s best picks.

And unlike his son, the first President George Bush cast a wide net in making his appointments. Bush went so far as to pass over Craig Fuller, his chief of staff during his tenure as vice president and the man who led his transition team, in favor of New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu to serve as his presidential chief of staff.

The younger Bush has displayed little reluctance to call on those with whom he has close personal connections. Besides Miers, his personal attorney in the pre-presidential years, Bush has rewarded friends like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s general counsel when he was governor of Texas; and Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose home in Dallas once served as a stopping-off point for the future president during his jogging routine.

Margaret Spellings, a Bush senior adviser during his years in Austin, now serves as secretary of education. In announcing her appointment, Bush said, “She is a devoted, loving mother to Mary and Grace, and (first lady) Laura (Bush) and I are proud to count her and Robert (her husband) as good friends.”

Bush has appointed longtime friend and confidant Karen Hughes to a high-level State Department post and his political adviser, Karl Rove, has been called on to oversee the Hurricane Katrina reconstruction effort.

Bush offers no apology in promoting those with whom he shares a personal connection. In the case of Miers, Bush acknowledged that while he places value on competence, he looks for other characteristics as well.

“People know we’re close,” he said. “But you’ve got to understand, because of our closeness, I know the character of the person. It’s one thing to say a person can read the law _ and that’s important _ and understand the law. But what also matters is the intangibles.”

Bush said that a person’s strength of character “counts a lot. And as a result of my friendship with Harriet, I know her strength of character.”

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)