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Miranda Rights

A conservative martyr's comeback.

On a recent morning in Washington, Manuel Miranda was plotting conservative strategy for the upcoming Supreme Court nomination wars from the cluttered living room of his Capitol Hill townhouse. He sat crammed behind a small desk by the window, cordless phone to his ear, leading a conference call of some 50 grassroots Republican activists across the country. These were generally hardcore, pro-life conservatives, people dead-set against allowing George W. Bush to elevate his old friend and perceived abortion softie Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to the bench.

“Are there any folks on the call from Texas that know of any support for Gonzales in Texas?” Miranda asked. “Cathy, are you on the call? Cathy from Eagle Forum in Texas?” He listened for a moment and then added, “So there is no one on the call who is comfortable with the Gonzales nomination?” Opinions duly solicited, Miranda took the lead with an authoritative tone. “OK, let me tell you what is happening now, based on White House sources. There are two factions in the White House....” After dispensing scuttlebutt involving a struggle between noble ideologues and dreaded “pragmatists,” he issued some talking points: “The global issue is that the president promised a nominee like Scalia or Thomas. I think we need to remind the White House of that promise.”

In the middle of this, there came an unexpected knock at the front door. Miranda, mid-call, shrugged helplessly and motioned for me to answer. A neighbor was there to ask whether she might plug her garden hose into his outdoor faucet for some yard work. Oblivious to her disturbance of a high-stakes national political strategy session, she happily accepted my indifferent permission and strolled off.

There was a slight bathos to it all. Here was a broad-faced and slightly pudgy 45-year-old in wrinkled slacks and an untucked shirt urging his listeners that “folks at the very top of the [Republican National Committee] need to hear from us,” while his neighbor waited to hear from him about lawn care. But Miranda’s almost comical circumstances belie their serious origins. He works out of his home because he was fired last year from a senior Senate job amid allegations of theft and treachery that are now the subject of a federal investigation. Though hailed as a hero by the far right and reviled as a venal crook by Democrats, until recently, Manuel Miranda seemed destined to become a forgotten footnote of Washington political history. But the latest round of the judicial wars—and particularly the upcoming showdown over the Supreme Court—have offered this media-savvy ideological warrior a chance to rehabilitate his reputation and to perform that sublime American feat of turning disgrace into fame.

Miranda was born ten months after the 1959 Cuban revolution—showing, he says with a wry grin, “that different people react to revolutions in different ways.” His anti-Castro family moved first to Spain and then to Queens, New York, where Miranda grew up a Democrat. In the 1980s, he was converted to the GOP by Ronald Reagan’s anticommunism and his own increasingly devout pro-life Catholicism. After graduating from Georgetown and a small California law school, Miranda became an attorney. He was feisty from the start—and, his critics say, filled with delusions of grandeur. In 1989, he was arrested by Georgetown campus police after he crashed a meeting of the university’s alumni association as part of his clients’ attempt to win control of the organization. When Miranda sued the school, a judge scornfully dismissed his case, deriding the “plaintiff’s effort to portray this case in apocalyptic terms as if it were an overriding human rights or civil rights struggle on a par with those of Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela rather than a relatively pedestrian disagreement between groups of alumni.”

Miranda established his conservative bona fides in the mid-’90s as the head of the nonprofit Cardinal Newman Society for Catholic Higher Education, which agitates for conservative values on Catholic campuses—a perch he used, among other things, to hound Georgetown President Leo O’Donovan for his perceived moral laxity. Then, in 2001, soon after testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on “religious liberty,” Miranda was recruited by the committee’s chairman, Orrin Hatch, to join his staff. A mere two years later, Miranda was tapped to be Majority Leader Bill Frist’s top counsel. Democrats say this rapid career trajectory was aided by religious-conservative activists who wanted Frist to hire a reliable ally “to do their bidding,” as one former Democratic judiciary aide puts it.

True or not, Miranda certainly did please the far right by leading a fierce GOP effort to confirm a handful of conservative Bush nominees who were being blocked by intense Democratic opposition in 2002 and 2003. Miranda particularly delighted conservatives in November 2003 when he orchestrated an all-night “debate” to highlight Democratic judicial filibusters. Unfortunately, Miranda also embarrassed himself when a leaked e-mail revealed his efforts to coordinate the spectacle with Fox News: “Fox News Channel is really excited about this marathon and Brit Hume at 6 would love to open with all our 51 Senators walking onto the floor,” he wrote to fellow GOP staffers. “The [Fox] producer wants to know will we walk in exactly at 6:02 when the show starts so they get it live.”

But it was a far more serious leak that brought him down. A few days later, excerpts from internal Democratic memos charting judicial nomination strategy were published in The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal, and later, several of the documents were posted on a conservative website. An internal Senate investigation quickly fingered Miranda as the leaker. It turned out that, thanks to a computer glitch, Miranda, while serving as a Judiciary Committee staffer, had been able to access private Democratic files from his computer without a password. Other Republican aides who had learned about the glitch earlier refused to exploit it. But Miranda had no such compunctions, and, as he has since admitted, secretly downloaded and leaked the files. After Hatch pronounced himself “mortified [over] this improper, unethical, and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files,” Miranda became a pariah and resigned from Frist’s staff, he says, to spare the majority leader further political damage.

Miranda was furious and felt betrayed—especially by Hatch, whom he called “limp-wristed.” He argued that the memos themselves—which showed Democrats working closely with liberal interest groups and, in one case, debating whether to delay a nominee who might influence a pending court case—were the real scandal, not the leak. (Democrats, noting Miranda’s attempted Fox News stunt and the GOP’s own obvious fealty to interest groups, tend to find this line amusing.) Indeed, Miranda told me his only real mistake was in not giving the memos to federal agents so they could investigate Democratic “corruption.” He maintains that, because the memos were essentially “left unprotected,” he did nothing illegal—a question currently being explored by a federal prosecutor in New York. And as for the ethics of snooping on his Democratic colleagues? “You have no ethical duty to your opposition,” he declares.

Many Washington conservatives seem to agree. GOP icons like Free Congress Foundation Chairman Paul Weyrich have rallied to his defense, as have writers in outlets like National Review and The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which called Miranda “a scapegoat … pinned to the wall for phony political appearances.” The American Conservative Union even e-mailed an action alert declaring Miranda “a courageous American Hero.”

Heroism might have been cold comfort at first. For much of last year, Miranda was unemployed, and he was forgotten as the judicial wars temporarily subsided during the 2004 election campaigns. His frustration peaked in March of this year, when he filed an affidavit charging that Senate Democratic staffers had called the law firm of McDermott Will & Emory, where he was up for a job, and threatened retaliation if they hired him. (A McDermott partner told The Boston Globe that it was the ongoing federal investigation, not Democratic pressure, that nixed Miranda’s chances.)

This past spring, however, the intensity of the Senate’s showdown over the filibuster gave Miranda new life. Suddenly, Washington was again obsessed with judicial nominations, and a former insider like himself was in high demand. Using contacts and an e-mail list he had compiled while a Senate staffer, Miranda assembled the National Coalition to End Judicial Filibusters, a vehicle for mobilizing grassroots support for the “nuclear option” that, by his count, organized 200 groups nationwide to pressure Frist to settle for nothing less than total victory. Miranda says it was easy getting the ear of grassroots conservatives “on the basis of the name recognition and trust that came from the Democrats’ abuse of me.”

After a compromise deal among Senate moderates ended the nuclear option fight, Miranda adapted: He renamed his operation the Third Branch Conference and reorganized it around the battle for the Supreme Court. “He’s effective because he understands the process as an insider, but he carries himself like a grassroots activist from the outside,” says fellow conservative judicial activist Sean Rushton.

That’s true. But Miranda has also been effective at the crucial Washington art of self-promotion. His “coalition” mainly amounts to conference calls and mass e-mails. “I’m a one-man operation,” he concedes. Yet that’s enough for the press: In recent weeks, Miranda has appeared on Fox News and MSNBC, and he has been quoted in The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, the Toledo Blade, The Buffalo News, and so on. Reporters keep coming back, because Miranda, like any shrewd would-be pundit, supplies them with reliably saucy quotes. He recently complained to Newsweek, for instance, that cynical GOP strategists were pushing a Gonzales nomination as a sop to Latinos, with a future Jeb Bush presidential candidacy in mind. “We’re not Republican patsies,” Miranda huffed. “Jeb Bush can go sell insurance.”

That sort of thing may enrage the White House, but reporters love it. “He hasn’t exactly been on-message. … The hit on him is that he’s kind of gone off the reservation. There are some issues there, resentments,” says one aide to a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “[But] the guy is brilliant. He understands p.r., and he’s good at media.” Miranda’s one-man activism, the aide says, “is a way back into the game.”

And so it is. When I visited him, a documentary film crew was recording his every move for an upcoming feature on the judicial wars; a boom mike hovered overhead throughout his conference call. When he finished the call, Miranda exhaled loudly. The activists were spoiling for a good fight, he said with apparent admiration, and resented White House exhortations to mute their attacks on Gonzales. I asked him about his relationships with former allies on the Hill, some of whom now consider him an outcast. “I certainly have a bittersweet feeling about the whole thing,” he said.

Suddenly he realized it was noon—and time for another conference call. Miranda was back at his desk, holding forth again into the cordless phone, this time to a group of Jewish Republicans. His introduction was a reminder that, in conservative politics especially, martyrdom is a potent marketing tool. “My name is Manuel Miranda, and I’m chairman of the Third Branch Conference,” he began. “Some of you may recall my name from when I was counsel to Majority Leader Bill Frist.” How could anyone forget?

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the July 25, 2005 issue of the magazine.