The Associated Press today has an article by Calvin Woodward discussing the current speculation that President-elect Obama, known to have read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling study of Lincoln’s Cabinet Team Of Rivals, may follow the Great Emancipator’s example and bring in a number of his competitors for the White House into his inner circle. Ah, anyone up for Chris Dodd as Attorney General, Dennis Kucinich at Health and Human Services, John Edwards at Education? I thought not. But these aren’t the people that pundits have in mind, and not even Bill Richardson is the one who’s really got the pundits chatting. The one “rival” everyone is thinking about is Sen. Hillary Clinton. Will she serve as Secretary of State if asked?
The truth is that it’s hard to understand why Hillary would take the job, assuming she still has a run in mind for 2012. Until the Civil War, the State Department was a major stepping-stone to the Presidency. Jefferson, Madison, John Quincy Adams, Van Buren all moved on to be Chief Executive after serving as Secretary of State.
Then James Buchanan, who’d been Secretary of State a decade before, was elected President in 1856, and his performance during his term made the credential somewhat less appealing. No former Secretary of State has reached the Presidency since. During the last century, only one former head of Foggy Bottom has made a serious run for the White House – Gen. Alexander M. Haig, when he undertook his short-lived bid in 1988. And just one Cabinet member during that time has gone on to be President – Herbert Hoover, who was elected in 1928 after serving as Commerce Secretary. (Although one could argue that, as UN Ambassador under President Nixon, the elder George Bush held Cabinet rank.)
It is obvious that putting Hillary in charge of State would leave Vice President-elect Biden, with his vaunted foreign-policy credentials, out in the cold; he’d be lucky to get a meeting with the Prime Minister of Uzbekistan. So I’m inclined to think that Obama, after he gives the matter some more thought, will go for someone with more hands-on diplomatic experience.
Woodward’s article, incidentally, contrasts Lincoln’s cabinet with Nixon’s; he describes the 37th President as being surrounded by “sycophants.” To buttress that point he quotes Interior Secretary Walter J. Hickel, who was obliged to leave the Cabinet after openly criticizing Administration policies. It’s hard to believe the journalist has read extensively in the history of the Nixon White House. In economic policy, there were substantial differences in the positions of such advisors as George Shultz, Herb Stein, John Connolly and Arthur Burns, and abundant evidence that consensus was reached only after careful discussion and, as they say, a vigorous exchange of views. John Ehrlichman and Pat Buchanan, to name just two examples, didn’t agree with each other or the President on everything. In the 1973-74 period, there were differences on how to approach the energy crisis. The atmosphere of Nixon’s White House was hardly as filled with factionalism and disagreement as many of Lincoln’s cabinet meetings, but the range of opinion was certainly greater than in some other recent administrations.