"History is philosophy teaching by example." (Lord Bolingbroke)

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Monday, November 29, 2004

What Is a Cabinet For? (Only a President Can Know for Sure!)

The make up of the president's cabinet continues to generate controversy. Is this really necessary?

What's a cabinet for? Good question. No one knows for sure because the president's cabinet is a reflection of what the president wants it to be. In other words, there is no hard and fast rule that determines how the cabinet is to be organized and what the exact function will be. Congress must approve the appointment of any person that occupies a position.

Now that George W. Bush is assembling a different cabinet for his second term, clamorous protests are sounding about his choices. He is accused with filling the cabinet with "yes men and women," as if loyalty shouldn't be considered as a factor. The appointment of Condoleeza Rice as secretary of state is an example. She is being portrayed as both a "flunky," and a "yes woman." Some partisans even have used language that is unkind or have used racial slurs, or called her a "servant rather than a peer."

Should a president choose people that refuse to implement his policies for the sake of diversity and hearing another side,? Or, better still, shouldn't the cabinet members that are charged carrying out public policies put forward a united front, especially in a time of war? Why would any president choose people that are contrary to his beliefs and policies as some propose? That would be insane.

The Constitution is vague on the subject of the cabinet. The president "may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices." But is the cabinet an executive council?

In Federalist No. 70, Alexander Hamilton specifically rebuts the idea of government by an "executive council."

"No favorable circumstances, palliate or atone for the disadvantage of dissension in the executive department." "They serve to embarrass and weaken the execution of the plan or measure to which they relate..They constantly counteract those qualities in the Executive which are the most necessary ingredients in its composition, vigor and expedition."

At best, cabinet officers are, at best, tools of presidential power; and that why they may respectfully differ with a president in private, in public they must support and implement his policies or else resign.

There have been lapses. According to John Quincy Adams, at one cabinet meeting late in the Monroe administration Treasury Secretary William Crawford called the president a "damned infernal old scoundrel" and "raised his cane, as if in an attitude to strike." For his part, Monroe "seized the tongs of the fireplace in self defense, applied a retaliatory epithet to Crawford, and told he would immediately ring for servants and turn him out of the house." In 1868, President Andrew Johnson sought the resignation of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton not only refused, he physically barricaded himself in his office.

The cabinet has had its ups and downs, and presidents have used it in strikingly different ways. Andrew Jackson saw cabinet appointments as convenient payoffs to his political supporters, while real advice was sought from an informal group known as the kitchen cabinet, a group that later Franklin Roosevelt later gave official status when he created the Executive Office of the President.

In modern times, presidents also used the cabinet as they saw fit. Richard Nixon did not trust bureaucracies, particularly the State Department, which he circumvented by sending the National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, rather than Secretary of State William Rogers, on secret trips to carry out his policies. Bill Clinton appointed a cabinet that "looked like America," but nearly all of his key advisers, from Dick Morris to Leon Panetta, were outside the Cabinet. On the other hand, the Ronald Reagan administration was mainly steered via its powerful secretaries of state and defense as was the Bush-Baker administration.

The secret lies in two predominate factors. First, with the president's philosophy of government: does he see the cabinet as chiefly a vehicle for pursuing political or for policy aims? And secondly, what is the personal chemistry between the secretaries and the president. Trust and access are more important than rank and title. Although some presidents govern with a cabinet and others govern around a cabinet, shouldn't a president govern through the cabinet?

Now that we know what it's for, give the new cabinet a chance. Lighten up. During a time of war we should present a united front to the world and stop making a big to do over what every president, through custom and constitutional design, see as his personal perogative.



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