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:
I don't believe I even thanked you or your mother for the fine dinner you gave me, and I know I didn't thank Agnes for her pie. She ought to know it was very much appreciated though because two pieces disappeared in my direction; and you know I always enjoy dinner at your house.
Writing a non-thank-you thank-you conveys your implicit annoyance with the obligation, and allows you to passively assert your superiority by declining to properly meet it. Perhaps Miers should have tried this tactic: It was also a favorite of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who used it in 1919:
My dear Susie: A fortnight ago I hoped to deliver you in person my thanks for the birthday greetings and to show you the tie in situ; but you were off with joyous Jonathan.
The note continues for another half-page, but it never returns to the tie.
Virginia Woolf struggled more than most with the thank-you note, although she wrote them beautifully. (This one, to Thomas Hardy for his life's work, is a gem; this one, to Lady Robert Cecil for a fur, is almost parodically Woolfesque.) Still, Woolf felt that her command of the language only complicated matters. After she attended a performance by a friend, she wrote, "If only I weren't a writer, perhaps I could thank you and praise you and admire you perfectly simply and expressively and say in one word what I felt." (Perhaps, although perhaps that word would be "Cool!") Instead, though, Woolf continues:
As it is, an image forms in my mind; a quickset briar hedge, innumerable intricate and spiky and thorned; in the centre burns a rose. Miraculously, the rose is you; flushed pink, wearing pearls …
It's a non-thank-you thank-you with a twist: Woolf offers a flattering prose-poem in lieu of straightforward thanks. As always—and unlike Miers—Woolf is keenly aware of how she will be perceived as a writer, which may be why she so resists the thank-you note's ready clichés. But even these evasions convey a sense of self-worth: My writing is so important that I can't just say "Thanks for the ticket."
Perhaps Miers could learn the most from another Southerner: Margaret Mitchell. When Mitchell thanked the critic Joseph Henry Jackson for his warm review of Gone With the Wind, she opened with humility:
My dear Mr. Jackson:
I am Margaret Mitchell, author of the book "Gone With the Wind," of which you wrote so kindly in the "Chronicle" on May 13 and 14. It is my first book and I am so new and green at the business of authoring that I do not even know if it is good form for an author to write to a critic.
But then she inserted a little fillip, as though to notify Jackson that she didn't send breathless thanks to every critic in town:
God knows I'm not like my characters, given to vapors and swooning and "states," but [after I read your words] I was certainly in a "state."
It's just enough to make her thanks seem genuine, not rote, and to frame the thank-you note as correspondence between equals. That's all Miers needed to include—some slight assertion of pride, some little reminder that effusiveness is not her default state. Sadly, an extra exclamation point couldn't do the trick.