President's new team started at the bottom

There's a pattern of humble beginnings

December 04, 2004|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Horatio Alger has nothing on these guys.

Fleeing post-revolutionary Cuba, Carlos M. Gutierrez began working for Kellogg's by selling cereal off his truck. He is now chief executive of the cereal giant.

Abandoned by his mother at age 4, Bernard Kerik took a fat pay cut to be a beat cop in crime-riddled Times Square. He later played a key role in New York City's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Living in a two-bedroom house with seven siblings, Alberto Gonzales was raised by loving parents who were migrant workers and who never finished elementary school. He could become the highest-ranking Hispanic to serve in the U.S. government.

What do Gutierrez, Kerik and Gonzales have in common - besides the fact they all might soon be working way, way inside the Washington Beltway? Their backgrounds have become material for bootstrapped political narratives that clearly resonate with President George Bush and, arguably, the country. In nominating Gutierrez for commerce secretary, Gonzalez for attorney general, and Kerik for homeland security secretary, Bush made a point to publicly note the humble beginnings of his appointees.

"There's no question that this president is fascinated by these wonderful stories," says Stephen Hess, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "These `Only in America' stories are very important and meaningful to him. It's a pattern."

Remember Bush's first Cabinet in 2001, Hess says. Norman Mineta - Bush's nominee for transportation secretary - was among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry forced into internment camps during World War II. Colin Powell's parents immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. Elaine Chao, whose parents were refugees from Communist China, became the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet position.

Also from Bush's first Cabinet, Rod Paige, then education secretary, grew up in the segregated South, as did Condoleezza Rice. Last month, Bush again noted Rice's humble beginnings in nominating her as the next secretary of state.

With seven of the 15 members of Bush's Cabinet having announced their resignations, the president has taken the opportunity to again create a "counter Cabinet," says Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. Americans expect Republicans to nominate fat cats, Light says. Rather, Bush is drawn to people who have survived tough upbringings - in contrast to the president's life story.

"These Bush nominees didn't go to the so-called right schools or make the right connections. In a sense, they are the anti-Bush," Light says. "They are what Bush wanted to be."

Presidential historian Robert Dallek says the biographies of the appointees might soon be forgotten, but what remains is the president's anti-establishment impulses. "Bush is very drawn to these anti-establishment types. It's his stock and trade," says Dallek. And remember, he says, that Bush likes to "brag about being a down-home fellow."

Bush's life story does not resemble Lincoln's log cabin, Carter's peanut farm, Clinton's place called Hope or even the tale of an Austrian boy who took to body building then governing California. Bush is, of course, the son of a president. He attended Yale, ran an oil company, owned a baseball team and governed Texas. "He didn't do it by selling cereal off the back of a truck," as Hess says.

The president never sold peanuts, either. But his vice president, after dropping out of Yale, did spend two years working on power lines in Wyoming.

That's not a bad story.

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