The Right Coast

October 22, 2005
"Misunderestimating" Your Audience
By Gail Heriot

A year ago (or was it two?), White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card gave the keynote dinner speech to the Federalist Society's Annual Lawyers' Conference. Card was not the originally scheduled speaker that night. He was replacing someone of equal or greater celebrity, but quite honestly I can't recall who it was--Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Norton ... somebody. Whoever the original speaker was, he or she couldn't make it on account of some matter that trumped our banquet and had cancelled a few days before. It was extremely kind--even heroic--for Card to fill in.

The speech itself was not a raging success. Like many keynote speeches, it was long and dull. Most important, it was pitched too low for a room full of mostly politically sophisticated lawyers. But I was inclined to cut him a lot of slack given the circumstances. "Bless his little heart," I thought to myself, "He probably shouted to his assistant as he raced out the door, 'Quick! Get me the text of a speech that I can give to the Federalist Society!' And by mistake, the assistant gave him the speech that he had given last year at the Boy Scouts' Jamboree."

Some of my colleagues at the event were not as inclined to cut him that slack. Two of them independently remarked to me that Card's speech was the worst they'd ever heard. That struck me as an overreaction at the time (and it still does, though the fact that two people said it probably means something). I have heard much worse speeches in my time. But it's hard to deny that Card's speech suggested that he just might not have understood the group he was addressing.

Indeed, the Miers nomination is evidence of such a "misunderestimation." Card has been identified in the media as the driving force behind the ill-fated move. If so, I wonder if part of his problem isn't a serious underestimation of conservative organizations like the Federalist Society and of conservatives generally. Is it possible that when Card called out to his assistant he said something like, "Quick! Get me the text of a speech I can give to the Federalist Society! The one I gave last year to the National Association of Imbeciles will do!" ?

I have a difficult time understanding how the folks at the White House could have been taken surprise by the reaction they have gotten so far from conservative lawyers (and from conservative generally). And yet they apparently were. Did anyone there really believe that no one would look askance at this exercise in cronyism? Did they think no one would notice the thinness of her resume? If so, there has been a serious failure of communication over all these years. It's a real shame that it has taken a botched Supreme Court nomination to bring it to the Adminstration's attention.