The Invisible Bush Cabinet

Why no one knows who the commerce secretary is.

Quick: Who is the secretary of housing and urban development? Too hard? All right, then. Who’s the secretary of labor? How about the secretary of energy? Or the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy? He isn’t a member of Bush’s Cabinet, but he enjoys Cabinet rank. Not even Chatterbox, who is paid to know these things, could have told you the drug czar’s name without looking it up. (For a complete cheat sheet, click here.)

As presidencies near their end, it’s not uncommon for dynamic Cabinet secretaries to be replaced by bland seat-warmers. The forgettable quality to these appointments is nicely illustrated by Slate’s recent need to explain to readers why White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card is addressed as “Secretary Card.” (Answer: He was George H.W. Bush’s transportation secretary during the waning months of his presidency.) But Dubya’s presidency isn’t nearing its end. Nearly half his current term remains, and there’s a fair chance he’ll be granted a second one. Moreover, with the sole exception of Treasury Secretary John Snow, every member of the current Bush Cabinet has been present since the start of Bush’s presidency. This is the Original Broadway Cast, not some touring company. Why do so few people know who these people are?

Chatterbox thinks the Bush Cabinet’s obscurity is well-deserved—not because the individual members lack personal dynamism (we haven’t seen enough of them to know!), but because they have done so little to warrant anybody’s attention. The Bush administration fights wars and it cuts taxes. (That’s why everyone knows who Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld are, and it’s why many people know who Snow is, even though he’s been in the saddle less than six months.) But the Bushies do precious little else. The only Bush domestic initiatives that have a chance of being remembered are Bush’s decision to restrict stem-cell research and his “no child left behind” education bill. Oh, sure, he’s saddled budget-strapped states with new responsibilities while reducing federal aid, leaving less money for things like medical care for the poor. And he’s brought back the budget deficit in a big way. But these actions are the result of laziness and indifference, not malice. As such, they really can’t be called policy. Can you name one thing Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has done during the past two years? Neither can Chatterbox.

To plumb the shallows of the Bush Cabinet’s fame, Slate intern Avi Zenilman last week stood for an hour in front of the Commerce Department building asking passers-by if they could identify the secretary of commerce. Out of 38 who consented to answer him, only seven could state that it was Don Evans. Six of these seven were Commerce Department employees. A park service ranger and two security guards newly assigned to Commerce were among those who could not name the commerce secretary. “I’m new here,” one of the security guards explained. “I know him when I see him.” A nearby T-shirt vendor said, “The Secretary? Charlie? Tall black guy, right?” (Don Evans is white.)

This was not Main Street, U.S.A. It was Washington, D.C., where cab drivers read the Federal Register. These people couldn’t name Don Evans not because they were ignorant, but because Evans had given them no reason to know his name. The same applies to most of the rest of Bush’s Cabinet.