Bean Soup

ELLEN GOODMAN

January 05, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- After all was said and done, after all was added and subtracted and shuffled around a bit, Bill Clinton did what he promised. The class photo of his Cabinet presented a more diverse portrait of Americans than had ever been assembled around a presidential table.

This was the official breakdown: Six white men, three black men, three white women, two Hispanic men, and one black woman. That's 15 secretaries and a whole lot of counting going on.

But before we put aside the numbers and get on with the policies, one last observation about the way we divvy up Americans these days.

With all due respect to the president-elect who let off steam at the ''bean counters,'' the people ''playing quota games and math games,'' bean-counting is not a new political pastime. The demands for diversity, for a Cabinet and government that ''looks like America,'' go back over our history.

What is different is our image of what America looks like. What has changed are the beans.

Without much notice or fanfare, the concept of diversity in America gradually and then fundamentally shifted. It is no longer a matter of geography, religion, nationality or even class. When we talk about diversity now we are talking about race and gender and, in the case of Hispanics, ethnicity.

There was a time when geography was so important that the Constitution doesn't allow a president and vice president from the same state. More than one chief executive tried to please the north and the south, the east and west points on his constituency compass. Diversity was a collection of white males from different places on the map.

As for religion, our grandparents were conscious and self-conscious. The first Catholic made it to the White House in 1961. That same year, Sen. Abe Ribicoff turned down the attorney general's job because, he told Jack Kennedy, it would not help the cause to have a Jewish attorney general putting Negro kids in schools in the South.

Now, quick, tell me the religious background of three or more Clinton Cabinet members? Our grandparents would have known, would have instantly counted any beans of their own religious persuasion, especially if that religion were a minority. Religion is not a moot issue in this country, but in political terms, it's muted.

As for nationality, the old urban ticket of political patronage -- Italian, Irish, Polish -- was no easy balancing act. But as they were admitted, assimilated, Americanized, many European Americans stopped counting. At least out loud.

Today, in the new diversity game, an Italian Catholic male is ZTC another white bean. Donna Shalala's roots in a Lebanese-American family are no more politically salient than her birth as a twin. The newly designated secretary of Health and Human Services is a woman bean.

It is the job and the curse of outsiders to be bean counters -- to feel their exclusion acutely and to plead their grievance. The people who have felt locked out most want someone ''of their own'' at the table. As a symbol and a representative.

This new math can admittedly lead to some odd calculations. We count Robert Reich, the designated secretary of Labor, as another white male insider. Yet at 4 feet, 10 inches tall, he had his own struggles to win.

We list Warren Christopher, the designated secretary of State, as an establishment male, though he was raised one of five children by a widowed salesclerk. We list Mike Espy, secretary of Agriculture as an outsider though his family owned 28 funeral parlors. There's more than white and black in our backgrounds.

Hazel O'Leary, for that matter, sits at the Cabinet table as both a black and a female. Zoe Baird is not just the first female attorney general but the first mother of a pre-school child in the Cabinet. We are individuals as well as beans.

But there is still something in the historic record that is reassuring about the future. Critics say that the claims of diversity are splintering America, dividing and subdividing us into our warring parts. Yet Americans have become less -- not more -- conscious of region, religion, nationality. It can happen with race and gender as well. As we are included, we stop counting.

For now though, the Clinton Cabinet does look a lot like America. It's not exactly a melting pot. But it's a pretty interesting bean pot.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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