Column: Keys to the Cabinet

PHOTO: Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images James G. Watt, Ronald Reagan's pick to head the Department of the Interior, was named by Time magazine as one of the worst Cabinet secrataries ever.

PHOTO: Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
James G. Watt, Ronald Reagan’s pick to head the Department of the Interior, was named by Time magazine as one of the worst Cabinet appointments ever.

There’s no doubt that the next Leader of the Free World is having a jolly time of it as he moves, with Trumpian gusto and flourish, through his two-month interlude as President-elect.

And why not? The stretch between Election Day and inauguration is traditionally a honeymoon period and Trump is in his element, doing what he enjoys most: talking to folks who want something from him. He can’t satisfy all of them, of course, but he seems to relish deciding which of these worthies should be appointed to his Cabinet or to other key positions in his administration.

Needless to say, it’s all but inevitable that at some point down the road, Trump will sour on some of these appointees and assail them with the withering command he loves to utter — “You’re fired!” But for the moment, everything is sweetness and light, as befits a honeymoon.

What’s amusing about these appointment rituals is the earnest effort made to give the impression that all the Cabinet posts are of comparable importance and prestige. The blunt truth is there is a vast difference between the four major departments — state, defense, treasury and justice — and the relatively minor, low-key operations that round out the Cabinet.

Yet whenever an appointee to one of these lesser posts — labor or commerce or energy, let’s say — is formally introduced to the media, he or she invariably gets as much face-time and la-di-da attention as the big shots named to the top jobs.

As a gesture of courtesy, that’s admirable. But it’s also grossly misleading because for most of these second-tier nominees, the star turns at their introduction ceremonies are apt to be the public high point of their careers in the Cabinet.

While the new secretaries of the four glamour departments exert influence in the high-profile decisions that produce headlines, their counterparts generally spend most of their time languishing in the humdrum of their minor bureaucracies. If they surface at all, more often than not it’s because they’ve become entangled in an embarrassing incident or a similar misfortune.

Whenever a new Cabinet is assembled from top to bottom, I’m reminded of a book that I co-authored with my former CBS News colleague, Bob Schieffer. The subject of “The Acting President” was the Reagan White House, and in it Bob and I devoted a chapter to the Cabinet that Reagan put together — with plenty of help from others — following his victory in the 1980 election. Here’s a brief look at two of his choices.

When President-elect Reagan let it be known that he wanted at least one African-American in his Cabinet, his advisers steered him toward Samuel Pierce, a successful New York lawyer and lifelong Republican. Although Reagan had never heard of Pierce, he appointed him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

A quiet, unassuming man, Pierce was never one to seek the limelight, and the limelight returned the favor. He managed to serve through the entire two terms of Reagan’s presidency in utter obscurity.

One day when Pierce showed up at a ceremony in the Rose Garden, the president couldn’t help but notice the only black man at that function. But Reagan didn’t recognize him. So, making a guess and acting on that impulse, he walked over to his HUD secretary and heartily greeted him as “Mr. Mayor.”

Then there was Interior Secretary James Watt, an arch-conservative from Wyoming who made a name for himself as the head of a legal foundation that fought environmental advocates on a variety of issues.

During the late 1970s, his firm filed more than 40 lawsuits on behalf of oil, power and mining interests.
Watt was, without question, the most conservative member of Reagan’s Cabinet, and in sharp contrast to Pierce, he never met a limelight he didn’t like. At his Senate confirmation hearing, he displayed a penchant for outlandish remarks that only served to undermine his credentials.

In response to a query, he readily admitted saying on one occasion that “as a white man I will be very hesitant to allow a black doctor to operate on me because I will always have the feeling that he may have been carried by the quota system.”

Watt also rejoiced in being a born-again Christian and, with his missionary zeal, had no tolerance for anyone who disagreed with him. He once declared there were just two kinds of people in the country, “liberals and Americans.”

Nor did he gain much support at his hearing when he asserted that his duty in life was to “follow the scriptures which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns.”

All in all, Watt made such a negative impression that his appointment was barely confirmed by the Senate. And his three-year stint as Secretary of Interior was dogged by controversies, most of which were set in motion by his own gaffes.

His last one came in the fall of 1983 when a coal mining advisory committee he had recently established was criticized for its lack of ideological balance. Responding to the charge, Watt insisted the panel was perfectly balanced, and to prove his point, he noted that it was composed of “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.”

Until then, Reagan had defended Watt at every ill-chosen turn of phrase, but he now recognized that his Interior chief had finally gone too far. The appropriate signal was sent to Watt and he submitted his resignation.
These two tales of life within the Reagan Administration — and there are many others worth recalling — may help to illustrate an often overlooked aspect of those years in Washington. Whatever else one thinks about Ronald Reagan’s presidency, it was, without question, a recurring source of mirth.

So now it’s Donald Trump’s turn at bat. Perhaps his reign in the White House will provide a comparable treasure-trove of gaffes and folly. I realize that’s not a lot to hope for, but it’s better than nothing — or Armageddon.