Stand Up Guy: In Today Show Interview, W Quick on Feet on Katrina, Less So on Miers

If you invite the chubby kid from down the block to the birthday party, is it fair to criticize him for eating cake?

There was something of that lack of hospitality to the Today show's interview of President and Laura Bush this morning

For weeks now, Today has been reveling in its contribution to the Katrina relief effort, notably in its collaboration with Habitat for Humanity. Two weeks ago, Today transformed Rockefeller Plaza into "Humanity Plaza," erecting Habitat homes for transport to the stricken area.

This morning, the action moved to Covington, Louisiana, where a home was being erected on site. And who was there, hammer at the ready to lend a hand, but President Bush himself, accompanied by Laura.

Yet almost no sooner had Matt Lauer begun the stand-up interview than he suggested W was engaging in a photo op. A bit ungracious, no?

In any case, there were two distinct Ws on display. In the first half, dealing with Katrina and its aftermath, W was literally nimble on his feet.

Lauer quoted "a prominent Democrat in Louisiana" who is demanding 'to see a plan on paper, your plan to rebuild this region." Asked Lauer: "do you have that kind of a plan?"

With body language that bespoke ease and confidence, W responded:

"Matt, you see, I don't think Washington ought to dictate to New Orleans how to rebuild. I guess we have a different philosophy from the 'prominent Democrat' who you spoke to. My message is we will support the plan [local people] develop. The point is that it comes from the local folks. And I recognize there's an attitude in Washington that says we know better than the local people, but that's just not the attitude I have."

But when talk shifted to Miers, one could sense a shift in body language and mood.

Lauer cited a number of conservative critics of the nomination, then asked: "were you taken off-guard by the amount of criticism you're getting for Miers?"

In this person's opinion, W set up a straw man in defense, suggesting that the criticism was simply due to the fact that he had chosen someone from outside the "judicial monastery."

But surely W knows that the criticism goes far beyond that, to Miers' perceived lack of interest or knowledge in the constitutional issues of the day. Does the president believe for a moment that conservatives would have criticized him had he chosen a brilliant, conservative constitutional scholar who is not a lawyer, such as Prof. Jeremy Rabkin of Cornell?

The president then repeated his stock praise of Miers, which notably seemed to include an embellishment of her record. He spoke of her being consistently ranked as "one of the top 50 women lawyers in the United States." In fact, in 1998 Miers was ranked by the National Law Journal among the top 50 "most infuential" lawyers, rather different from being ranked as a "top lawyer."

W then delved into feminism, referring to Miers as having broken "the glass ceiling" and "served as a great example." The president again raised the straw man, asserting that "just because she hasn't served on the bench" doesn't mean she can't be a great Supreme Court justice.

Lauer then alluded to conservatives feeling "let down" by W, and asked whether he truly felt Miers was "the most qualified" candidate for the job.

Laura responded to the question, again sounding the feminist theme: "I know how many times she's broken the glass celing herself. She's a role model for young women."

Added Mrs. Bush: "She's very deliberate and thoughtful and will bring dignity to wherever she goes." Not negligible qualities in a judge, but one senses these are the kinds of compliments paid when one is incapable of honestly asserting that someone has a great legal mind.

Matt sought to pour gasoline on the feminist fire, suggesting there might be "sexism" in the criticism of Miers. Concurred Laura: "that's possible. I think that's possible." And yet again Laura couched her response in feminist terms, arguing that people are overlooking that Miers was the first woman head of the Texas bar and the first woman to head a large Texas law firm.

W concluded by expressing his conviction that Miers would be confirmed and, with a slight stumble for words, argued that "she won't change. The person I know is not going to change her philosophy, and her philosophy is not to legislate from the bench."

While Lauer and Today might have been ungracious in first inviting W to their Habitat set, then criticizing him for coming, all in all the tenor of Matt's questioning was not hostile.

Finkelstein has degrees from Cornell University and Harvard Law
School.He lives in Ithaca, NY where he hosts "Right Angle," a local
political talk show. Finkelstein specializes in exposing liberal bias
at NBC's Today

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