Abigail Thernstrom, the Bush-designated vice chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, privately blasts his pick of Miers

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After Sandra Day O'Connor resigned from the Supreme Court in July, the White House reached out to an informal network of conservative lawyers and academics to help build support for the next nominee. The group of about three dozen worked smoothly during the confirmation battle over John Roberts, plotting strategy in conference calls with administration officials and penning newspaper op-eds. But last week members of the "brain trust," as one called it, rebelled. In a string of sometimes testy e-mail exchanges among themselves, the lawyers agonized over the selection of White House counsel Harriet Miers. They also debated vigorously whether they should go public with their dismay, or simply say nothing.

"We are keeping quiet. And hiding from the media," wrote Abigail Thernstrom, the Bush-designated vice chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a prominent critic of affirmative-action policies, in an e-mail copied to other members of the network. "As for undermining trust in the president, I am afraid he has accomplished that all on his own—without any help from us." (Asked for comment last week, Thernstrom said she was upset that a "private e-mail exchange ends up in the news media.")

The e-mails, copies of which were obtained by NEWSWEEK from one of the participants, illustrate the depth of conservative angst over the Miers selection. Many on the e-mail trail fretted about their own "credibility" if they publicly took up the cause for Miers, who seemed to lack the credentials they value. "It no longer matters whether she's the second coming of John Marshall; the cronyism charge has stuck, bec. [sic] it's so obviously true," wrote Michael Greve, a legal scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Greve wondered what was next. Would Bush, he asked, replace Fed chair Alan Greenspan with "a young lady in the basement of the West Wing who did a terrific job on the TX Railroad Commission [and was the] first Armenian bond trader in Dallas ..."

Others stuck by the president. George Terwilliger, a former top Justice Department official who worked for the GOP on the 2000 Florida election battle, said that "unless it does violence to one's conscience, I would respectfully suggest that we suck it up and show our support" for the administration.

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