11 ill-starred presidential picks, from Abe Fortas to Susan Rice

Susan Rice at the United Nations. (AP photo)

Most presidential nominations to key government posts sail through the Senate with little debate and (occasionally these days) little delay.

Not so with Susan Rice, President Obama’s first choice to serve as Secretary of State in the president’s second term. Republicans had put Obama on notice that they would do everything they can — that means threatened filibuster — to block the United Nations ambassador from becoming the nation’s top diplomat. The proximate cause of their anger: Rice’s comments on Sunday TV shows about the Sept. 11 terror attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Democratic loyalists have been outraged at what they consider the unfair attacks on an African American woman with impressive academic credentials.

That debate will continue, but Rice won’t be Secretary of State. She withdrew her name from consideration this afternoon.

Rice joins a list of ill-starred presidential picks over the past half century. Some, like Rice, were never nominated. Some withdrew before Senate consideration. Others were rejected by the Senate.

Rice joins this list of ten presidential choices who didn’t end up with the job:

Abe Fortas

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s choice to replace Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was blocked by Republicans led by South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. Before the battle was over, Fortas had resigned his own court seat and the GOP ran out the clock on the Johnson administration, leaving new President Richard Nixon with a chance to shift the court to the right.

G. Harrold Carswell and Clement Haynsworth.

Nixon’s choice for Chief Justice, Warren Burger, won easy confirmation in 1969. But the Senate rejected two Nixon choices for the second high court vacancy: Clement Haynsworth of South Carolina and G. Harrold Carswell of Florida. Haynsworth was tarnished by accusations of being an unreconstructed segregationist and Carswell was accused of being both extreme and underqualified. Nebraska Republican Roman Hruska may have hammered the nail in Carswell’s political coffin when he defended him this way:

“Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

After the rejection of Haynsworth and Carswell, Nixon picked Minnesota judge Harry Blackmun, who was confirmed.

Mildred Lillie

The California appeals court judge might have become the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Nixon in 1971 announced his intention to choose her to fill one of the vacancies created by the retirements of John Marshall Harlan and Hugo Black. But the American Bar Association deemed her “unqualified.” Nixon relented and nominated William Rehnquist (whom he once referred to as “Renchberg”) and Lewis Powell instead. Lillie, a Democrat, served as an appellate judge for 44 years until her death at age 87 in 2002.

Robert Bork

The federal appeals court judge became a verb (to be “borked”) when President Reagan chose him for the Supreme Court in 1987. Liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy led the opposition, roaring these incendiary words:

“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is—and is often the only—protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”

Bork was rejected by the Senate, 58-42.

Douglas Ginsburg

Reagan’s first choice to follow Bork was federal appellate Judge Anthony Kennedy of California, but Republican Sen. Jesse Helms threatened a filibuster to prevent the “liberal” Republican from reaching the Supreme Court. Not eager for a fight with the prominent conservative lawmaker, Reagan opted instead for former Harvard law professor and then-judge Douglas Ginsburg, saying Ginsburg’s confirmation was ”vitally important to the fight against crime.” Nine days later, Ginsburg asked Reagan to withdraw after admitting that he had violated the law by smoking pot. ”I have today asked President Reagan not to forward my nomination to the Supreme Court,” a shell-shocked Ginsburg told reporters. Reagan then chose Kennedy for the high court.

Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood

Bill Clinton’s first choice for Attorney General was withdrawn after Baird acknowledged she had failed to pay federal withholding taxes for a nanny who was in the U.S. illegally. The new president’s next pick, New York federal judge Kimba Wood, paid the required taxes on her nanny and broke no law — but the controversy over her employment of an illegal immigrant led to her withdrawal. “Nannygate” changed the vetting process for a generation of presidential nominees. Clinton eventually chose Janet Reno, a Florida prosecutor who never married and had no children.

John Bolton

The fight over the feisty neo-conservative’s nomination to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations was messy and prolonged. Bush picked Bolton, one of the architects of the Iraq War, in the spring of 2005, but Senate Democrats blocked his confirmation. Bush refused to back down and gave Bolton the job temporarily as a “recess” appointee. Bolton’s confirmation hopes were dashed by the 2006 midterm election setbacks suffered by Republicans. He eventually withdrew as a nominee.

Harriet Miers

George W. Bush’s White House counsel, his former personal lawyer and a close friend, was the victim of friendly fire. While Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid hailed her nomination, conservative Republicans said she was unqualified for the high court. Under heavy pressure from his party’s right, Bush withdrew the Texas lawyer’s’ nomination. Her replacement was Samuel Alito, who has become a reliable conservative vote on the high court.