The following essay, The Truman Show: In choosing Miers, Bush pulled a Truman, by Professor William Stuntz originally appeared in The New Republic Online on October 4, 2005.
What kind of president picks both John Roberts and Harriet Miers? They look like the ultimate odd couple. Roberts is not a Bush crony, he has a résumé to die for, and everyone who knows him says he’s unbelievably smart. Miers is more than a crony but certainly not less–Fred Barnes says no president has ever known a Supreme Court appointee as well as Bush knows Miers, and he may be right. She has the kind of résumé you expect to see in the director of a not-very-important federal agency: president of the local bar, member of the Dallas City Council, chair of the Texas Lottery Commission. Roberts looks like an idea guy, the person who figures out the theory that changes the way people think about his field. Miers looks more like a gifted schmoozer–at best, she’s the one who hires the idea guy. (Apparently, she had a lot to do with hiring Roberts.) The conservative meritocracy meets the old-gal network. It doesn’t add up.
Actually, it does. We have seen this kind of presidential appointment pattern before, in Harry Truman’s White House. Truman’s list of Supreme Court nominees looks like a reading list for Mediocrity 101: Harold Burton, Fred Vinson, Tom Clark, and Sherman Minton. All but Clark were buddies from Truman’s Capitol Hill days–classic Miers-like picks. But Truman had his Roberts moments as well. Along with forgettable hacks like John Snyder and J. Howard McGrath, his Cabinet included giants like George Marshall and Dean Acheson, wise men who crafted the policies that won the Cold War.
That strange combination flows naturally from the Truman characteristic that history so admires, the one that his contemporaries found so frustrating: his decisiveness. Truman didn’t believe in deferring to experts; as the sign on his desk said, the buck stopped with him. Though an ex-senator, he had a very un-legislative disdain for decision-making procedure. Mostly, he just called ’em as he saw ’em, with little reflection and no second-guessing.
In a White House like that, decisions are bound to be high-variance. When layers of process and staff surround every appointment, the extremes–good and bad–tend to be lopped off. Brilliant minds with controversial ideas get nixed along with third-rate schmoozers. But when the boss refuses to staff it out and trusts his own intuition, all those options remain on the table. Cream can rise to the top. So can scum. That is how Harry Truman’s presidency produced both Dean Acheson and Fred Vinson, the brilliance of the Marshall Plan and the ineptitude of the Korean War. Few administrations have such highs or such lows.
Like Truman, George W. Bush makes decisions easily. He obviously trusts his own intuitions, especially about people–remember, this is the man who looked into Vladimir Putin’s soul. Also like Truman, Bush does not readily admit mistakes, and hence rarely corrects them. It is no accident that both presidents fought badly improvised wars. Finally, Bush has a Truman-like virtue many presidents lack: He doesn’t mind having people with better minds and better educations around him. Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz–these are major-league talents, a cut above the norm for their jobs. So is John Roberts, who might be the smartest chief justice since Charles Evans Hughes. But along with the Rices and Robertses come an Alberto Gonzales here, a Michael Brown there–people who are a notch or two below the norm for their jobs. As is Harriet Miers.
It seems odd that our first business-school presidency would suffer from flawed decision-making–isn’t decision-making what they teach in business schools? But it may not be so odd after all. When corporate managers hire underlings, they choose from the pool of people who have done similar jobs before and succeeded. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and you get New Coke. But the potential for catastrophe is limited by the pool; only people who have done something like the job in question, and done it in a way that made money, are eligible.
At first blush, government looks the same: You give the best jobs to people who have done well in similar jobs. But the equation doesn’t work, as a look at Harriet Miers makes clear. Miers has just been named to one of the top lawyers’ jobs in the country, after a successful career doing other lawyers’ jobs. So far, so good. But success in Miers’s professional world is surprisingly hard to get a handle on, partly because there is no clear measure of what lawyers sell. If the client wins the litigation, credit the lawyer’s skill. If the client loses, blame the law. Well-functioning markets require yardsticks like stock prices and market shares. The market for legal services has no such yardsticks. Even if it did, legal institutions seem designed to obscure credit and blame. Partners put their names on briefs that associates write, just as judges who hire the right law clerks acquire reputations for writing smart opinions. The person who sells the idea to the client is rarely the one who had the idea.
Most government jobs are even worse. Aside from the rare disaster that leaves corpses in its wake, government agencies know no bottom line–or else, the bottom line is perverse: Raise your agency’s budget and you’ve done a good job. Creative, insightful people are scattered through the world of government service. But they don’t always rise to the top. Some of the people who do rise to the top are better at impressing the boss than at generating innovative ideas.
Harriet Miers may be one of those people. If so, we can chalk this bad appointment up to the governing style of a president who makes decisions easily but not always well, a president who has seen steep highs and deep lows, a president who trusts his intuitions even when he shouldn’t. A president who, on his bad days as well as his good ones, looks a lot like Harry Truman.
William J. Stuntz is a professor at Harvard Law School.