Dubya, Reyn Archer, and the Commissioner of Love

Since George W. Bush lacks clear and detailed knowledge of policy matters, it’s especially important to inquire what sort of people he would appoint to advise him. So far, he’s appointed Dick Cheney, who in the vice-presidential debate established himself as a reassuringly sober presence. (“Don’t worry,” he all but said, “I won’t let Dubya do anything stupid.”) But Bush also appointed Dr. William Reynolds “Reyn” Archer III to be Texas commissioner of health. As Chatterbox writes this, Reyn Archer’s job is hanging by a thread because of some nutty (and possibly racist) comments he made to his Commissioner of Love before firing her. But Chatterbox is getting ahead of himself.

Reyn Archer is the son of Bill Archer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. During the presidency of Bush pere, Reyn served as deputy assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services. Archer endeared himself to social conservatives by being the Bush administration’s chief defender of its “gag rule” prohibiting anyone who was not a physician from discussing abortion with pregnant women at family planning clinics that receive federal funds. (The Clinton administration subsequently reversed that policy.) In 1997, Archer was chosen by the Texas Board of Health to be the state’s commissioner of health. Bush not only approved the appointment, but also, Archer told Adam Clymer of the New York Times last April, asked Archer to apply for the job in the first place.

Archer has been the focus of much controversy, only some of it having to do with his opposition to abortion. He has been accused of making a variety of outrageous comments about women, blacks, and Hispanics. For example, according to the Houston Chronicle (Archer’s biggest press tormentor), Archer said at an education conference in 1998 that “We need to figure out why it is when blacks were more segregated and had less opportunity that they did better on cultural measures than they do in that sense today.” Archer also caught hell for telling Clymer that the state’s Hispanic population didn’t believe “that getting pregnant is a bad thing.” This flap was slightly unfair, since Hispanic teen-agers in Texas do have a higher pregnancy rate than non-Hispanic whites and blacks. (On the other hand, Archer was apparently wrong to blame the state’s overall high teen pregnancy rate on Hispanics since white teen-agers in Texas have a high pregnancy rate, too.) Archer’s department was accused earlier this year of diverting $700,000 from school health clinics for low-income children to state office renovations. Time magazine slammed Archer in a story alleging that he watered down regulations of dietary supplements containing ephedrine in deference to $40,000 in campaign contributions to Dubya’s gubernatorial re-election. And just a few days ago, Archer accepted the resignation of his top adviser after the Chronicle reported that the adviser had hired a homeless man with no résumé to a $38,000-a-year post.

Archer’s most notorious achievement, however, was the creation of two $76,000-a-year associate-commissioner jobs in his department that Texas legislators derisively nicknamed “Commissioner of Love.” The qualifications included “knowledge or the ability to comprehend and articulate the conflicting dynamics of love and alienation as root causes of social dysfunction and marginal health status.”

Dr. Demetria Montgomery, a black woman, was hired to be a Commissioner of Love. It didn’t work out. In September she was dismissed, and yesterday Polly Ross Hughes reported in the Houston Chronicle that Montgomery is suing for discrimination. Which probably wouldn’t be much of a story if Montgomery didn’t have Archer on tape saying some very peculiar things–so peculiar that Dubya quickly labeled Archer’s remarks “inappropriate.”

In Chatterbox’s view, Archer’s comments were too bizarre and incoherent to confidently be labeled racist (though they might be). Here is the main offending passage:

I want you to go back, and I want you to write down what it is you want. And I want you to tell me what you’re going to do to get what you want and how it will be different and why it will be different. I want you to do the journey for yourself because it’s your journey now. And I want you to come back to me, and I want you to talk with me about what you want. I want you to be clear about what I’m asking you. That is facts lead to lynchings. Relationships lead to hope. Facts are about somebody, one person getting their way. [Inaudible] is about everybody winning.

Archer also said:

You’re smart. You’re capable. You’re fair as a black woman. You get certain privileges in white culture that others don’t get for that.

And finally:

Our culture even tries to even break that down and to say there is no hierarchy, but there is a hierarchy … It’s really important. There’s a wonderful exhibit of [photographer] Annie [Leibovitz], and there’s a woman in Mississippi who’s an African-American woman and her hair is white on white. She has the most beautiful, gestural [sic] face. …She’s dressed in very simple cotton clothing, how very simple. Under it, it says her name, and it says “washerwoman, Lexington.” It’s very moving because in all of her humanity, in the simplicity of her work, there is this great generosity of spirit. Not just in the daily doings but that emanated from her face. I wanted to hold that woman because she was open to me.Are you open to your brokenness? Are you open to that? Because you can’t understand community dynamics unless you’re open to your brokenness. …

Believe it or not, these excerpts don’t do full justice to the rambling and deeply embarrassing nature of Archer’s half of this conversation. Chatterbox urges all concerned citizens to read the transcript in full. Although it’s probably a safe bet now that President George W. Bush won’t be appointing Reyn Archer to succeed Donna Shalala as HHS chief, one must ask: How could Dubya hire such a flake in the first place? Does he know more where this one came from?