The Uncabinet

A guide to key appointments Obama should resist.

With Barack Obama’s presidential victory in the bag, speculation has begun about who he’ll appoint to his Cabinet. Actually, it began some time ago. Russell Baker of the New York Times many years ago invented a spectral figure called the Great Mentioner to describe how the Washington cognoscenti come to view this or that public figure as a candidate for political advancement. Sometimes the Great Mentioner passes along names under consideration by the deciding person or body. Sometimes the GM passes along names that the cognoscenti merely feel warrant consideration. Because the deliberations are secret, it’s hard to know the difference (and also a lot less fun).

It used to be that you needed a lunchtime reservation at Washington’s dog wagon of the moment either to learn who’s on the list or to add some names yourself. Today the GM’s picks, like all other human knowledge, have migrated to the Internet, where they’ve been democratized to a fare-thee-well. A college kid elevated Sarah Palin to the GOP’s potential veep choice merely by creating a Web site. You don’t even have to be American! The world is flat, and nous sommes tous Washington insiders. No harm in that. Indeed, this digitization saves Washington journalists like me a lot of time. But like the names I’d likely hear whispered over chardonnay at Acadiana, the Googled mentionees—mostly those very same names—are a hodgepodge of good prospects and bad. Somebody’s got to winnow.

Back in October 1987, Paul Glastris published a deeply researched magazine piece in the Washington Monthly under the headline “The Powers That Shouldn’t Be.” Glastris now regrets what he says was at least one bad call: He wrote that the next Democratic president should not elevate William J. Perry to secretary of defense. Perry subsequently performed that job with admirable skill during the Clinton administration. The impact of Glastris’ misjudgment was blunted by the Democrats’ failure to recapture the White House in 1988—a luxury I do not enjoy as I compile my own do-not-hire list. Hoping to avoid Glastris’ error, I have researched this piece perfunctorily. But caveat emptor: I cannot eliminate entirely the possibility that one or two of the judgments rendered below flunks the test of time.

State Department. Do not appoint Bill Richardson, who by some accounts is the front-runner. Obama may feel he owes Richardson because the New Mexico governor endorsed him after dropping out of the presidential race and ended up being called a “Judas” by James Carville. But Richardson took his sweet time before embracing Obama; he dropped out in mid-January and didn’t cough up the endorsement until late March. Richardson’s résumé includes Clinton administration stints as energy secretary and as U.N. ambassador. He didn’t perform either job particularly well. As energy secretary, Richardson rashly accused Los Alamos official Wen Ho Lee of espionage—a charge later proved false. As U.N. ambassador, Richardson didn’t do anything anyone can remember except offer Monica Lewinsky a job three months before the story of her affair with President Clinton hit the Internet. “He has no great beliefs,” observedSlate’s David Plotz in June 2000, “which may be why he didn’t mind flattering despots.” Richardson has twice broken the world’s record for most handshakes in an eight-hour period. He’s very proud of this. Don’t you find that alarming?

Also, do not appoint John Kerry. The 2004 election demonstrated that nobody likes him. That isn’t disqualifying for a senator, but it is for a diplomat.

Also, do not appoint Anthony Lake. He made himself unconfirmable for Central Intelligence Agency director back in 1996 in part by saying on TV that he wasn’t sure Alger Hiss was guilty. Heads up: Alger Hiss was guilty. If you think Hiss wasn’t guilty and you want to get confirmed by the Senate, be my guest. But don’t shoot your mouth off about it, because if you do, you’ll be easy prey for the GOP. Also, I have to say that anyone who performs the mental calisthenics necessary to believe Alger Hiss may have been innocent runs a substantial risk that he won’t have enough additional mental energy left to run the State Department.

Supreme Court. Do not appoint Hillary Clinton. The Supreme Court needs jurists, not politicians. Plus, Bill would drive the other justices crazy.

Treasury Department. Do not appoint former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. I explained why last week. (See “Robert Rubin’s Free Ride.”) Rubin has said he doesn’t want the job anyway. Lawrence Summers, who succeeded Rubin, is said to be interested, but he’s too closely linked to Rubin and to former Fed Chairman (and current Public Enemy No. 1) Alan Greenspan to be a wise choice. Plus, the hash Summers made out of Harvard’s presidency suggested that even after holding one of the highest positions in government, Summers still was pretty clueless about getting along with other people—a crucial skill for whoever ends up managing the worst financial panic since the Great Depression.

Energy Department. Do not appoint Arnold Schwarzenegger. The supposed reason would be that Schwarzenegger is the rare Republican governor who’s doing something serious about global warming. But if there’s a shortage of Republican governors addressing climate change, can we really afford to remove one from state government? There’s no shortage of Democrats who are at least as committed as Schwarzenegger to reducing greenhouse gases. Pick one of them.

Environmental Protection Agency or Interior Department. Do not hire Robert Kennedy Jr. He’s too partisan and kind of a nut when it comes to policy. Check out this dangerously alarmist 2005 Rolling Stone piece about the purported link between autism and childhood vaccines. (To learn why Kennedy’s piece was alarmist, see “Sticking Up for Thimerosal” by Arthur Allen in Slate, August 2005.) Throw in Kennedy’s 1983 heroin bust, and you’ve got yourself an unconfirmable nominee.

Defense Department. Do not reappoint Robert Gates. Joe Klein floated this idea in a June Time magazine column inspired by Doris Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which shows how Abraham Lincoln co-opted his political enemies by appointing them to his Cabinet. The trouble with Klein’s thinking is that it’s all about politics and only vaguely about Gates himself, who gets good press mainly because he had the fantastic luck to succeed a disastrously bad defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Nancy Soderberg, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Clinton, and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, a liberal nonprofit, made a more substantive case last month in the Washington Post, arguing for Gates because he’s not an ideologue and because he favors shoring up failing states before they become havens for terrorists. But it still adds up to “he’s not as bad as those other blowhard Bushies.” I think that’s setting the bar way too low. Plus, I was never really satisfied that Gates came clean about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Attorney General. Do not appoint Jamie Gorelick. It pains me to write this partly because I know and like Gorelick and mostly because by all accounts she performed brilliantly as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. But her subsequent hiring as vice chair at Fannie Mae, despite her lack of any background in finance, and most especially the $26.4 million she received in total compensation over a period of six years disqualify her for public office. As Jack Shafer has noted in Slate, Fannie Mae was a bipartisan trough for the politically connected, but the patronage and executive pay were particularly lavish under James Johnson, a Democrat who ran Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign. (See “A Medici With Your Money” by Matthew Cooper, February 1997.) Gorelick needs a few more years of good works (the 9/11 commission was a good start) to rehabilitate herself.

It goes without saying—but I’ll say it anyway—that Obama should avoid hiring Johnson for any position. Obama probably learned that lesson during the campaign when he made the mistake of briefly putting Johnson in charge of his vice-presidential search. He should avoid Franklin Raines, Johnson’s successor, for the same reason.

Vice President. Not Joe Biden.



Then just make sure he keeps a low profile.