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Published: Friday, 12/22/2000

Building a cabinet

Although President-elect George W. Bush fared poorly among black voters - nine out of 10 voted for Al Gore and very nearly handed him the presidency - Mr. Bush wasted no time in selecting two distinguished African-Americans for his Cabinet.

The Texas governor's appointment of Colin Powell as secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as his national security adviser were, of course, not unexpected. He had long ago telegraphed his intentions. Mr. Bush also named two Texans who had worked for him, Alberto R. Gonzalez, a Texas Supreme Court justice, as his White House counsel, and Karen Hughes, as overseer of his planning and communications team.

A cynic might say Mr. Bush scored at least a double for diversity, with two blacks, two women, a white, and a Hispanic among his first four appointments of note. A retired four-star general, Mr. Powell set forth the U.S. military strategy in the Gulf War and delivered the goods. Prof. Eliot Cohen at Johns Hopkins' School of International Studies, has called Mr. Powell “the most politically adroit general the United States has seen since Dwight D. Eisenhower.”

Nevertheless, the position of secretary of state calls for diplomatic skills of a very high order. It has been said General Powell will have to show that he has outgrown the soldier's perspective, a question that should be explored in the Senate.

Ms. Rice has expressed some reluctance to once again take on the national security post, a pressure-cooker job that intersects the White House and Pentagon power bases. Mr. Bush said she would not have cabinet rank, but rather would be a full-fledged member of the White House staff. This suggests she will continue to be in large measure an adviser and foreign policy tutor to the new president.

Both appointments will inevitably focus on the administrative ability of two African-Americans and perhaps serve as the precursor of greater participation by other members of their race. However, as a former colleague of General Powell once commented, “Powell would succeed if he were green.”

Ms. Rice's resume is almost unbelievable. She grew up in a segregated atmosphere in Birmingham, Ala. When she was only 9 years old, in 1963, a bomb exploded in a local church, killing four black girls, including one of her friends. She is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, a pianist, an avid sports fan, and a former professor and administrator at Stanford University.

Two other Cabinet appointments this week show that in the argot of White House politics, money still talks. Paul O'Neill, an executive of Alcoa, was named Treasury Secretary, and Don Evans, a Midland, Texas, oil man and crony of Mr. Bush, was selected as secretary of commerce.

Mr. Bush called Mr. O'Neill a “steady voice” who would “calm people's nerves, calm the markets, calm those who would speculate in the dollar” in the event of an economic downturn. That prompted a Clinton administration retort that Mr. Bush was “talking down our economy for political positioning.” Mr. O'Neill brings impressive credentials to his job, but he will have a difficult time being both an international financial statesman and the point man for Mr. Bush's controversial $1.3 billion tax-cut proposal.

It is common for presidents to name their campaign fund-raisers to such lofty posts. Mr. Evans raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Mr. Bush and the Republican Party. The Senate should examine him closely as to how he sees his role when, as is almost certain, the Bush White House begins raising funds for a 2004 election.

The Senate should question Mr. Evans closely on his views and make sure he understands that the Maurice Stans bagman role in the 1972 Richard Nixon campaign must never be repeated.



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