WASHINGTON — President Bush finds a lot to admire in people who came up the hard way.
Rather than follow the traditional path of populating his Cabinet with academics, Washington insiders and CEOs, Bush has assembled a Cabinet that is not only diverse in gender and ethnicity but also an American mosaic in background.
Bush, of course, is the son of a president and grandson of a senator. He attended Phillips Academy, an elite prep school in Andover, Mass., and experienced Washington through his father’s posts at the CIA and in Congress and the White House.
Strikingly, many of his appointees have humble backgrounds or overcame hardships to succeed in business, government or both.
In November, when Bush named African-American Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, to succeed Colin Powell as secretary of State, he said people who come up the hard way bring qualities to their jobs that those who had an easier time might not.
“Dr. Rice has a deep, abiding belief in the value and power of liberty, because she has seen freedom denied and freedom reborn,” he said. “As a girl in the segregated South, Dr. Rice saw the promise of America violated by racial discrimination and by the violence that comes from hate. But she was taught by her mother, Angelina, and her father, the Rev. John Rice, that human dignity is the gift of God, and that the ideals of America would overcome oppression.”
Peter Schweizer, who wrote The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty, with his wife, Rochelle, says the younger Bush’s Cabinet choices reflect his personality. “Unlike his father, who was much more a man of the Establishment, Bush prides himself on being kind of a rebel,” Schweizer says. “Even though he grew up in privilege, he identifies on a certain level with people who are willing to take risks and challenge convention.”
Bush’s sentiments were clear when he announced the nominations of four other Cabinet secretaries for his second term:
• He told the story of Carlos Gutierrez, his pick for Commerce secretary, who fled to the USA from Castro’s Cuba with his parents in 1960, when he was 6. Gutierrez, whose hearing Wednesday launched the confirmation process for Bush’s new nominees, started with Kellogg as a cereal salesman and worked his way up to CEO.
• He noted that Alberto Gonzales, his nominee for attorney general, is one of eight children of Mexican migrant workers who never finished elementary school. Gonzales graduated from Rice University and Harvard Law School before becoming a Texas judge and later Bush’s White House counsel. His confirmation hearing opens today.
• He said Jim Nicholson, named to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, grew up in “modest circumstances.” Nicholson was more blunt, noting that he grew up “dirt poor in a tenant house without plumbing and sometimes without food.” He won an appointment to West Point, was a decorated Army officer in the Vietnam War and later became a millionaire businessman-lawyer. He is now U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
• Bush said Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, his choice for Agriculture secretary, grew up on a dairy farm in Iowa, making him better able to understand the interests of farmers
“The constant theme here is that they all have great personal stories, stories that reflect true grit,” says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Hess, a veteran of the Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, says Bush had the same fascination with great stories when he named his first Cabinet.
Powell, son of Jamaican immigrants, was secretary of State. Mel Martinez, a Cuban refugee, headed Housing and Urban Development. Rod Paige, a product of segregated Mississippi schools, took over Education.
Norman Mineta, who was sent to a U.S. internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II when he was 10, is staying on as Transportation secretary. And Elaine Chao, a Chinese immigrant, continues as Labor secretary.
In Bush’s first round of Cabinet picks, 11 of 15 had working-class or immigrant parents. Most were in the first generation of their families to go to college, often on scholarship. In eight replacements this year, at least five fit the pattern.
“Time and time again, he has reached out and picked people with these fascinating Horatio Alger success stories,” Hess says
Bush’s other Cabinet choices might not have great personal stories, but none was born to wealth or pedigree.
His nominees are a departure from the people his father, George H.W. Bush, tapped in 1992. The first President Bush turned to denizens of the capital for 10 of his 14 Cabinet jobs. James Baker, Elizabeth Dole, Dick Thornburgh, Caspar Weinberger and Lauro Cavazos had been Cabinet members in the Reagan administration. Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp, Manuel Lujan and Ed Derwinski were members of Congress. Adm. James Watkins was a retired chief of naval operations.
Half of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet picks had working-class or minority backgrounds, but Clinton emphasized their ethnicity and rÃ©sumÃ©s rather than hurdles they had overcome.
Shirley Anne Warshaw, a Gettysburg College political scientist who wrote The Keys to Power and other books on presidential management, says Bush’s penchant for people with modest backgrounds is part of the evolution of the Republican Party from country clubs and Wall Street to middle America.
“It is moving from being the party of the wealthy and elite to the party of the common man, the NASCAR dad,” she says. “Bill Clinton set out to create a Cabinet that looked like America. Bush set out to create a Cabinet that looks like the America that voted for him.”
Asked four years ago, shortly before he took office, whether he was trying to send a message with his Cabinet, Bush replied, “You bet: that people who work hard and make the right decisions in life can achieve anything they want in America.”
Scott McClellan, his spokesman, says Bush didn’t choose his nominees solely for their up-by-their-bootstraps stories.
“They were selected because the president believes they possess the skills, the integrity and the experience to do the job,” he says. “The values of hard work and responsibility that come from overcoming great challenges go along with that.”