Our lives depend on the right people doing the right jobs

September 15, 2005|By Douglas MacKinnon

WASHINGTON - There are good political appointments, bad political appointments and then the occasional selection that exposes the soft underbelly of all that is wrong, and even dangerous, with regard to cronyism.

Michael Brown, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is a graphic example. He was the wrong person in a critically important job, and his tin ear, ineptitude and lack of management experience doomed him to be the poster child for why, in the post-9/11 world, the rewarding of political buddies with plum jobs must change. Clearly our lives do depend on these accidental court jesters.

There's nothing wrong with a president picking loyal friends, campaign workers and even wealthy contributors, for administration positions. I was one as a low-level writer for President Ronald Reagan and as a communications specialist in the Pentagon of President George H.W. Bush. Every president since George Washington has picked such people, and every president since Washington has been accused of "cronyism."

But because we live in a country that is the No. 1 target for al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, it seems prudent for any president to use sound judgment when picking friends for any political job that affects the safety of our citizens.

With regard to Michael Brown, someone in the administration should have asked, "Hey, I just found out that before joining FEMA, Michael Brown spent 11 years as the commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association. A job he was basically fired from. Are you telling me that there is not one person in our country of 300 million people who has better credentials than this guy to eventually head the organization responsible for managing national disasters and protecting our families?" Apparently not. Every president has the right to pick certain people for political jobs and every president makes mistakes.

Several in Washington were amused, but not surprised, when then-President Bill Clinton picked Sidney Williams, the husband of Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., to be ambassador to the Bahamas. Maybe Mr. Clinton believed that being a car salesman and former pro football player were the perfect qualifications to be an ambassador. That, or he felt he needed to pay back Ms. Waters for being one of the first and most prominent African-Americans to publicly support his campaign.

Putting loyal friends in political positions is sometimes not cronyism but necessary in the interests of the U.S. government. A case in point is Venezuela. At the moment, our ambassador there is a very capable career diplomat, Bill Brownfield. Unfortunately, Mr. Brownfield has to deal with Hugo Chavez, the very dangerous and unstable leader of that oil-rich nation.

I just returned from two weeks in Caracas where I spoke with several Venezuelans opposed to Mr. Chavez. They are high-level people who believe that Mr. Chavez is exporting political upheaval throughout Latin America while seeking ways to cease all supply of oil and gasoline to the United States.

They see this and believe the country and our country would be much better served if our ambassador to Venezuela were a political appointee and not a career diplomat. They believe that, when moments count, a career diplomat is forced to go up the chain of command at the State Department whereas a friend of the president can simply pick up the phone and speak directly with the West Wing of the White House. I agree.

No matter. Clearly, with the Brown fiasco and the growing threat of terrorism, it is high time for both political parties and every serious presidential candidate to draw up a list of political jobs that forever more can only go to people who have extensive expertise in such fields.

Our lives really do depend on it.

Douglas MacKinnon, a former press secretary to former Sen. Bob Dole, was a former White House and Pentagon official and is an author.

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