Swearing in of the Clinton cabinet
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After four years in the Oval Office, Bill Clinton has learned a lesson or two about what it takes to be a successful President: Don’t expect the American public to embrace comprehensive health care reform. Don’t let your wife change her hairstyle too often. Always make sure there are fresh sheets in the Lincoln bedroom. Be nice to soccer moms.

But as Clinton embarks upon his second term, there is one lesson he clearly hasn’t learned: how to balance identity politics with smart policy. Make no mistake, the Clinton administration has made great strides in advancing women and minorities into the upper echelons of government, which is inarguably a good thing. But in his crusade to maintain a Cabinet that “looks like America,” Clinton often seems to get tired—or lazy.

It’s not just that he makes bad choices—although the jet-setting Hazel O’Leary and perk-loving Mike Espy do leap to mind. It’s that his choices often seem characterized by nothing so much as a lack of forethought, most likely the result of Clinton’s being more committed to a candidate’s biological qualifications than to her professional ones.

This tendency was vividly displayed in the President’s first-term push to get women into high-profile positions at the Justice Department—a mission that led to an embarrassing parade of unconfirmed candidates. Zoe Baird’s Nannygate (which eclipsed the candidate’s more general lack of relevant experience) was followed closely by similar revelations about Kimba Wood. No matter; Janet Reno had equally satisfactory chromosomes. Still, had Clinton given adequate thought to his nominees, he might have recognized their weak spots early on. Then he could have decided whether he wanted to drop them—before his choice became public— or stand and fight. This was particularly true with “Quota Queen” Lani Guinier, whose politically unpalatable—or “undemocratic,” as Clinton called them when he pulled her nomination—had been in print for all to see long before the President tapped her to head Justice’s civil rights division. But, despite the position for which Guinier was being considered, her take on racial politics apparently didn’t interest Clinton until conservatives made it an issue.

For Cabinet II, Clinton vowed to focus less on diversity and more on picking people suited for the job. After announcing his nominees, the President declared, “I would not have appointed a single one of them because of their gender or their racial or ethnic background had I not thought that they could succeed:” Maybe. But although this year’s selection process hasn’t (so far) been the circus that we saw in 1993, Bill’s lack of forethought is still showing. And his careless quota obsession not only stands to hurt the case of serious affirmative action, but also to have concrete negative effects on the American public. Two prime danger spots to keep an eye on: the departments of Energy and Labor.

The Luckiest Man Alive

In his 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning The Power Broker, Robert Caro tells the story of the unmaking of 20th century New York City by its political wheelers and dealers. In one scene, Caro outlines how, following the 1950 resignation of mayor William O’Dwyer, the city got saddled with a successor of dubious merit:

By law, the successor to a retiring mayor is the President of the City Council. By fate, the Council presidency was held in 1950 by an individual who, during the entire forty-five utterly undistinguished years of his life prior to his nomination to that …post, had never been deemed worthy of holding any job more responsible than that of secretary…to a judge named Schmuck. The nomination of this totally unknown minor Tammany ward heeler to the city’s second-highest elective office…had “staggered” in Warren Moscow’s words, “even the most imaginative among political reporters” And so had the explanation of how he had obtained the nomination. At a last-minute reshuffling of the 1945 Democratic ticket, the leaders finally agreed on Lazarus Joseph for Comptroller, and then realized that since O’Dwyer was Irish and from Brooklyn, while Joseph was Jewish and from the Bronx, the slate could have ethnic and geographic balance only if its third member was an Italian from Manhattan—and were unable to think of a single Manhattan Italian official they could trust. After hours of impasse, one leader reasoned that since legal secretaryships to State Supreme Court justices carried a respectable salary for which little or no work was required, they would have been given only to the “safest” of Democratic workers. Pulling out a little “Green Book,” the official directory of city employees, he turned to the list of legal secretaries, ran his finger down it looking for a name that even the dumbest voter would be able to tell was Italian—and came to Vincent R. Impellitteri. “No one knew who the hell he was,” Reuben Lazarus was to recall, but, looking up Impellitteri’s address, the leaders determined that he lived in Manhattan, telephoned his district leader and were assured: “You don’t have to worry about him. He’s a good boy.”

Fast forward 40-odd years, and you have President Clinton and his inner circle agonizing over the ethnic composition of his first-term Cabinet. The story is familiar by now: When environmental groups opposed the nomination of Hispanic Bill Richardson as secretary of the interior, prompting Clinton to go instead with Bruce Babbitt, the President found himself in need of another Hispanic Cabinet member. Thus both of the top contenders for head of Transportation, Chicago politico Bill Daley and former Michigan governor Jim Blanchard, were passed over for former Denver mayor Federico Peña.

To be fair, Peña was not a total stranger to either politics or transportation issues. Prior to his eight years as mayor, he served two terms in the Colorado legislature. And, as Clinton frequently noted in Washington’s early days of “getting to know” Peña, the new transportation secretary had been the visionary behind the mammoth Denver International Airport.

So it is perhaps fitting that Peña’s reputation followed a swift, downward course similar to that of his beloved airport. Starting out, the energetic transportation secretary was a curiosity to the media. He lacked serious experience, but he was also free of the taint of the airline or auto industry. And although the press often dismissed Peña as an “outsider” in Cabinet circles, they also praised him for being higher profile and more of an activist than his predecessors. They noted his willingness to go to bat for the airline industry in international disputes (at one point, he imposed sanctions on Australia for trying to limit U.S. carrier flights between Japan and Sydney) and his willingness to visit disaster sites such as the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake and the 1993 Amtrak derailment in Alabama.

Alas, Peña soon proved himself to be more activist than achiever. Early on, the secretary faced a number of concrete infrastructure challenges, including modernizing the nation’s decrepit air traffic control (ATC) system and promoting high-speed rail projects. Four years later, no visible progress has been made. In fact, in June of 1994, Federal Aviation Administration head David Hinson tossed out much of the ongoing project to automate the ATC system, when it was determined to be hopelessly over budget and behind schedule.

Long before ValuJet flight 592 hit the headlines, there were whisperings about the administration’s frustration with Peña (and his reported tendency to “say stupid things in meetings”). In a February 1996 survey of Cabinet experts conducted by Hearst Newspaper, Peña ranked second to last in job performance, just ahead of Energy’s Hazel O’Leary. The events surrounding last May’s ValuJet crash did nothing to improve Peña’s stature with the administration or the public. Proclaiming the airline to be safe contrary to any evidence the FAA provided him suggested the secretary was either incredibly ill-informed or a reckless advocate for the industry.

In fact, Peña’s knee-jerk support of ValuJet points to what may be both his greatest asset and his biggest flaw: blind boosterism. The general consensus is that Peña is an honest, enthusiastic guy—a world-class salesman and cheerleader for whatever constituents or projects he represents. Throughout his term at transportation, he frequently—and accurately—noted that his department was a much stronger advocate for US. airline interests than his predecessors’. (Of course, it can be argued that Peña’s greatest failure was in taking nearly four years to realize that, rather than serving as the airline industry’s top lobbyist, the DOT should focus on airline safety. Yet consistently, the department allowed the FAA to trail far behind the National Transportation and Safety Board on such issues.) The same was true of Peña’s tenure in Denver. Elected on the campaign slogan “Imagine a great city,” the energetic Peña set about selling Denverites on massive construction projects that would bring the city international acclaim.

Once the salesmanship part of the presentation is over, however, Peña has trouble on the follow-through. In Denver, he became notorious for selling the city on “megaprojects” that involved spending millions of taxpayer dollars and offered little in return. (In 1991, a group of disenchanted voters launched an unsuccessful recall attempt) Among Peña’s pet projects were the Denver convention center, which prompted a battle over the facility’s proposed location and has proved a disappointment in terms of event bookings; the city’s short-lived Grand Prix, which cost millions to put on and disrupted area traffic; and, of course, Federico’s greatest folly, Denver International Airport.

DIA may be the best example of the triumph of cheerleading over follow-through. Peña sold the idea for the behemoth construction project to voters and investors as a way to make Denver an international travel center; in 1990, the city did a bond issue based on an estimated price tag of $1.7 billion. In 1995, DIA opened, a year behind schedule; several billion dollars over budget (thus far, costs have exceeded $5 billion); and with most of its multi-million-dollar baggage system nonfunctional (as it remains today). As for turning the area into a major air hub, not one non-stop intercontinental flight goes out of DIA, and only a couple of flights leave daily for Mexico and Canada. In 1994, investors were so incensed with what they perceived as a misrepresentation of the project that they filed suit against the city with the SEC (who eventually bowed out, leaving the issue to the courts). “Peña would get the city into the damnedest boondoggles, not because he stood to personally profit, but because he couldn’t say no when somebody brought him a project,” notes Don Bain, the chairman of the Colorado Republicans who ran unsuccessfully against Peña in 1987. “He was awfully good at promoting and boosting, but not awfully good with hard choices.”

The equally stark lack of leadership and policy savvy Peña displayed as transportation secretary had him on most people’s short list to be replaced in Clintons second term. But come December 1996, the reelected Clinton administration found itself again engaged in the affirmative action Cabinet-shuffle. With Henry Cisneros’s departure from Housing and Urban Development leaving the President’s inner circle without a single Hispanic politico, “they were running around at the last minute, despairing of finding a good Hispanic candidate,” says a source close to the selection process. “Basically, Peña was available” Thus, Federico F. Peña emerged reborn as the secretary-designate for the US. Department of Energy.

Peña, however, is clearly even less prepared to run Energy than he was Transportation, a point the media have had a field day with. The New Republic’s Hanna Rosin, for example, skewered Peña with an anecdote about veteran DOE staffers using high-school physics texts to help the nominee cram for his confirmation hearings.

But sending an unqualified individual to head up the nation’s Energy Department isn’t really funny. If Peña’s boosterism was of limited use in Transportation, it will be of even less help in deciding issues such as how to deal with high-level radioactive waste disposal. And the fact that Hazel O’Leary, although more qualified, was considered even less effective than Peña is little comfort. One gets the feeling that Clinton has reserved the DOE as the darkened corner (or, as one attorney who works closely with the department calls it, “the Black Hole of Calcutta”) into which he shuffles his least impressive, quota-satisfying Cabinet members. Of course, this doesn’t seem to bother Republicans, who have made it clear that they have little use for the DOE and would just as soon see it dismantled and many of its functions placed under control of the Defense Department. With this in mind, you would think a concerned administration would have replaced O’Leary with a sharp, well-respected expert. With an effective leader, maybe the department could finally get down to addressing key issues such as getting its nuclear clean-up program on track and developing alternative energy sources, or at least maximizing use of the ones we have, so that the US. is less dependent on foreign oil.

Instead, Clinton simply waved Peña in the direction of the confirmation hearings, and the Senate ushered him through, with just a token fuss over his lack of qualifications. This despite earlier warnings by the confirmation committee that the White House had better send them “a qualified nominee who can competently address nuclear waste issues and DOE control of our weapons programs.”

Federico Peña’s principal qualification is his race. You know it. I know it. The folks in the administration know it. Of course, a couple of people I talked with pointed out that Peña has had experience running a federal department. Yes—and running it quite poorly, by all accounts. Having once done something should not be confused with having done something well.

The Queen of Schmooze

The choice of Alexis Herman for Secretary of Labor is an entirely different proposition. The only African-American woman nominated to the Cabinet, Herman is a major D.C. player whose experience with the Labor Department dates back to the Carter administration, when, at age 29, she became the youngest person ever to head the department’s Women’s Bureau. Her selection by Clinton, and the Senate’s subsequent delay in setting a date for her confirmation hearing, were tracked closely by both civil rights and women’s groups. To head off any urge Clinton might have to abandon Herman, the AFL-CIO and various civil rights and women’s groups rallied, calling press conferences to condemn the hold up as both a racist slap and, as The Washington Post‘s Dorothy Gilliam characterized it, a clear case of “an eminently qualified woman” running up against “a political glass ceiling”

Unlike Peña, Herman’s professional qualifications haven’t been of particular interest to Congress. Rather, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee is fixated on the nominee’s sketchy “outreach” activities while head of the White House Public Liaison’s Office—many of which rode that increasingly blurry line between marshaling support for presidential policies and marshaling campaign donors.

Naturally this is the point Republicans find most interesting, because it deals with the Democrat’s fundraising protocol and has the greatest potential for embarrassing the President and his heir apparent, Prince Albert. In its March cover story on Herman, The American Spectator (TAS), for example, questions her involvement with the much-scrutinized trade missions headed by one of Herman’s mentors, the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. Notes TAS reporter Byron York, “Congressional investigators have long suspected that the missions functioned as Brown’s payoff to corporations that had made big contributions to the DNC.”

Also of interest has been whether, in her pre-1993 private consulting work, Herman profited illegally from her many political connections. There’s certainly no question that Herman is well-connected. When I asked a longtime friend of hers for the names of a few people to talk with about her qualifications to head Labor, he reeled off a list of patrons, colleagues, and supporters that reads like a page from Who’s Who in African-American Politics: Jesse Jackson, Andy Young, David Dinkins, Willie Brown, Maynard Jackson. Introduced to civil rights politics at an early age—her father sued the Democratic party to win blacks the right to vote—Herman has enjoyed the patronage of the movement’s various luminaries throughout her career. Jesse Jackson and Ron Brown are among the most frequently mentioned (especially since Jackson lobbied hard for Herman’s Labor nomination). But perhaps just as noteworthy is Ernest Green. Currently under investigation by Congress and the FBI because of his ties to Chinese investment banker and arms dealer Wang Jun (one of the Asian businessmen suspected of trying to influence U.S. foreign policy with campaign donations), Green holds symbolic significance for Bill Clinton as one of the nine African-American students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Before entering the Carter administration, Herman was the head of the Minority Women Employment Program for Green’s nonprofit training organization, RTP Inc. When Green went to Labor in 1977, Herman followed. Following the Reagan victory in 1981, the pair left the department and co-founded the marketing and consulting firm of Green-Herman. Then, after Clinton’s election in 1992, Herman served as Green’s deputy director of the Clinton transition team.

From Green (and later Brown), Herman learned the finer points of deal-cutting and navigating Washington’s revolving door. As head of the Employment and Training Administration in Carter’s Labor Department, Green may be best remembered for his involvement with the infamous “midnight contracts.” In the weeks prior to Reagan’s arrival at the White House, Green and his staff sent out hundreds of telegrams promising millions in discretionary CETA funds to organizations such as Green’s former firm, RTP (which Green insisted had nothing to do with his former ties to the company), and Jesse Jackson’s PUSH (which eventually fell apart for lack of evidence the organization was accomplishing anything). The department later rescinded many of the last-minute grants, but Green staunchly maintained that he had broken no laws. Subsequently, the newly formed Green-Herman consulting group went to work for a number of the organizations that had received these contracts, including PUSH.

Green left the firm in the mid-80s. Herman changed its name to A.M. Herman & Associates and continued consulting, even after she was named Ron Brown’s chief of staff at the DNC in 1989 (a situation rife with conflict of interest possibilities). During this period, she maintained her close business relationship with Jesse Jackson. All through the ’80s, Jackson’s PUSH frequently threatened boycotts against companies whose minority hiring practices it considered inadequate. Often, Jackson would recommend that the targeted company consult Herman’s firm in order to improve their policies and practices.

Eyebrows have also raised over reports that Herman profited from rules she wrote while in the Labor Department regarding mandatory minority ownership in federal contracts. Among the most notable (and lucrative) are D.C.’s multi-billion dollar Federal Triangle project and the Market Square construction project, in which Herman was given an ownership stake now worth more than $500,000. As each new question about her past emerges, Herman (a la Ernie Green) maintains that she has done nothing illegal.

But although they make for hot headlines and tasty innuendo, the details of Herman’s alleged financial and fund-raising misdeeds distract us from the larger problem: Alexis Herman is the consummate Washington player, the ultimate behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealer, well deserving of her long-standing reputation as “the queen of schmooze.” (And Herman is the first to admit this. As she told an interviewer for Business Mexico following her all-female trade mission to Mexico last April: “I always say that contacts equal contracts.”)

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, if you’re the head of a lobbying firm—or the director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. But the Labor Department is not so much in need of a schmooze maister as a strong, motivated leader in the secretary’s seat to focus attention on the concerns of the nation’s workers. And, her considerable deal-making talents aside, Herman doesn’t quite seem to fit the bill—something that labor leaders pointed out prior to her nomination.

It’s no secret that union groups initially opposed Herman, throwing their support behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford. Once Clinton put Herman’s name up for consideration and the nominee drew fire from congressional Republicans, labor relented and came out in her favor. But according to one AFL-CIO official, the unions fear that Herman simply lacks the stature to be a strong, effective advocate for their issues. Or, as an administration staffer who dealt with Herman in the Public Liaison’s Office notes: “She’s too much of a lightweight for the job.”

The unions have also expressed concern that Herman, unlike Clinton’s first-term labor secretary Robert Reich, lacks the commitment or inclination to fight for their interests. Although her early career was spent working to move women, and particularly minority women, into the workforce, Herman’s primary experience with labor issues—both in government and as a private consultant—has been in designing workplace policy for businesses. And her work in the Liaison’s office focused heavily on business outreach. (It is telling that, despite four years in a job where she was essentially paid to make friends for the President, Herman did not win the confidence or support of the unions.)

Now more than ever, the American worker needs a friend in the Cabinet. Having fallen from its comfortable position of power in the 1980s, the organized labor movement is at a crucial point. Despite the efforts of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, membership is down, and unions have come under renewed political fire from the GOP for their efforts on behalf of Democrats last election. And although unions sometimes fall prey to corruption and parochial self-interest, they still play a vital role in protecting the interests of the average worker. What’s more, a strong Labor Department could help encourage unions to stay focused on issues that benefit the overall workforce (and the nation) rather than on narrow union concerns.

Nor is it just organized labor that stands to lose if the Labor Department inherits a secretary more interested in cutting deals than in shaping important policy. Under a Herman regime, the department’s focus on issues that affect the working poor, such as the minimum wage and adequate child care and health care coverage, would not likely receive the attention they did under Reich. Similarly, Reich’s fledgling attempts to overhaul the country’s vocational education programs would likely fall by the wayside, as would his crusade to hold garment manufacturers accountable for the use of sweat shops in the creation of their products (an issue the garment industry has already expressed optimism that Herman will be “more open-minded” about).

By nominating Herman for secretary of labor, President Clinton may have scored political points with women and civil rights groups—as well as with Herman’s numerous well-connected friends. But where will her likely confirmation leave the Labor Department for the next four years? In this time of government bashing and budget cutting, without a strong leader focused on and committed to the important issues, Labor (and the working people whose interests it represents) runs the risk of becoming about as ineffective, pointless, and neglected as, say, the Department of Energy.

Michelle Cottle

Follow Michelle on Twitter @mcottle. Michelle Cottle is a member of the New York Times editorial board and the Washington Monthly's Board of Directors. She was an editor for the Monthly from 1996 to 1998.