Last week, when the Smoking Gun posted Harriet Miers'correspondence with George W. Bush, the world pounced. Bloggers said she sounded like a "giddy 10-year-old"—"fawning," "sycophantic," "gushing," "embarrassing"—and concluded within minutes that she "isn't too bright."
The letters—which include such phrases as "You and Laura are the greatest!", "You are the best!" and "Cool!"—certainly lack the measured tones we've come to expect from our leading jurists. But let's cut Harriet a little slack. These letters aren't legal briefs. They're thank-you notes. They're not proof that she's a nitwit—they're proof that she's polite.
The thank-you note, however, is a difficult form, only slightly less tricky than the villanelle. The smallest notecard can seem a yawning canvas and reduce even the best writer to adverbs and redundancies. ("Dear Aunt May, Thank you so very much for the exceedingly beautiful socks, which are truly exquisite.") Even worse, we're supposed to write them all the time. Etiquette cops agree: Whenever anyone does anything nice (like, say, give you a ride in the gubernatorial plane) you should dash off a handwritten note of thanks and send it along post haste. The point is not to compose a masterpiece, but to get the damn thing in the mail.
This advice, we now see, is reckless. In following it—thoughtlessly launching exclamation points into the ether like so many seeds off a dandelion—Harriet Miers has endangered her reputation and her career. Where did she go wrong?
There are countless aids available for the grateful but tongue-tied. (Amazon offers Heartfelt Thank Yous, The Thank You Book, and The Art of Thank You, among others.) But it's not clear these books could have helped Miers, whose problem is not filling space, but knowing when to quit. This note, for example, hits all six of the officially sanctioned thank-you note sweet spots:
Thank you so much for including me in your great Juneteenth celebration. I found the dishes delicious and the company most enjoyable. Someday, if I ever cook again, I will try some of the recipes! You were most thoughtful to include me.
The letter Greets the Giver, Expresses Gratitude, Discusses Use, Alludes to the Future, and then offers a Grace note (the reiterated "You were most thoughtful to include me") and Regards. Still, there is something icky in that last line. The emphasis on inclusion has a hangdog feel, and suggests that Miers is one of those people who expects to be excluded. Her posture, here and in her other notes, is too abject. Thanks isn't worth much if it comes from someone who's grateful for every scrap she gets.
Miers isn't alone in her awkward expressions of gratitude. Throughout history, talented writers have wrestled with the form, and they haven't always won. But most of them found some way to mitigate this problem of posture—to present themselves as people whose thanks is a valuable thing. Benjamin Franklin, for example, liked to elevate himself by playfully criticizing whatever it was he was offering thanks for. In 1779, when he was in France, he wrote to a correspondent:
I thank you for the Boston Newspapers, tho' I see nothing so clearly in them as that your Printers do indeed want new Letters. They perfectly blind me in endeavouring to read them. If you should ever have any Secrets that you wish to be well kept, get them printed in those Papers.
Other writers (often men) have experimented with the non-thank-you thank-you—a note that acknowledges thanks are due and then fails to explicitly provide them. In 1912, a young Harry Truman sent his future wife Bess the following: