Cabinet is a collection of symbolic gestures

ROGER SIMON

December 23, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

You've really got to admire Bill Clinton for rushing to appoint his Cabinet before Christmas.

I do?

Yes, it shows a commitment to, uhm, something or other.

Yeah, it shows a commitment to giving the press something to write about at a time of year when depression, shopping and don't-eat-the-mistletoe are our usual subjects.

Picking a Cabinet is important!

Not really. It's an inside-the-beltway story. Because unless they really screw up or get indicted, it doesn't really matter much who is in the Cabinet.

I can't believe that.

Oh, no? Well, as a little experiment, how about naming the Bush Cabinet?

OK. There's Baker and, and the football guy who is on the Sunday talk shows, and the guy with the round head who was on a lot during the Gulf War . . .

Keep going.

OK, I give up. But I'll bet you can't name them all, either.

Sure I can: Sleepy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Dopey, Doc, Snoopy . . .

Come on!

You're right, I can't name them all. Which is my point. Cabinets don't matter. They are a collection of symbolic gestures.

Symbolic gestures?

Yep. That is why everybody is keeping track of how many women Clinton names and how many blacks and how many Hispanics, etc. The modern Cabinet has become a pay-off to constituencies.

Isn't that what Cabinets have always been? A way to make political pay-offs?

That wasn't the way it was envisioned. If George Washington hadn't made some key Cabinet appointments, we might not have a country today.

Really?

Sure. Don't forget that when Washington took his oath of office in April, 1789, there were guys like Patrick Henry and George Clinton who wanted to abolish the Constitution and start all over again.

George Clinton? Any relation?

Probably. Clinton was a member of the Continental Congress, but didn't get to sign the Declaration of Independence because Washington ordered him back to New York to defend it against the British.

Gee, what tough luck.

Yeah and it got worse. He eventually became vice president.

But they didn't dump the Constitution. Washington made it work, right?

Yes, but part of the reason was the quality of his Cabinet. And remember, he had only four positions, so he had to make them count. So first he chose Thomas Jefferson for Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

I never heard of that one.

No, they changed it to Secretary of State in September of that year, probably to stop the bad jokes.

Who else did Washington pick?

Alexander Hamilton for Treasury.

Why?

I guess Washington thought Hamilton would look good on a $10 bill.

Really?

Of course not. Hamilton was a man of extraordinary talents, a true genius. Which, today, would disqualify him from a Cabinet position.

Why?

No president today would select anyone with the remotest chance of overshadowing him. But Washington didn't care about that.

Who else did he pick?

Henry Knox was made Secretary of War. He had distinguished himself at dropping cannon balls on British soldiers, which was what the job was chiefly about at the time.

And then, just to show he was human, Washington selected Edmund Randolph as Attorney General. Randolph had done a lot of personal legal work for Washington and later was accused of a certain willingness to take bribes.

I guess some things don't change. How did they rate on the diversity meter, by the way?

Lousy. The Cabinet was 100 percent white and 100 percent male. Two were from Virginia, one was from Massachusetts and Hamilton was from Nevis in the British West Indies.

Which sewed up the West Indian vote?

Had there been one. No, Hamilton was selected for his brains and in the hope he could get a handle on the crushing national debt.

How big was it?

About $50 million.

What is it today?

About $4 trillion.

Gosh, what do you call that?

What every president calls it: Progress.

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