As Barack Obama's team winds down to the junior-grade cabinet posts, it's not exactly the hope agenda we're getting. More like payback time to various political dynasties and diversity goals. Ray LaHood as Transportation Secretary? (Score one point for another Republican in the cabinet, and another for yet one more Illinois politician.) Ken Salazar for Interior? (Check the box for another Hispanic and another one for rewarding Colorado, a key swing state.) Tom Vilsack for Ag? (Please note, ethanol lobby; and let's earn another cheer from the Team of Rivals book club.)
But all three of these are uninspiring choices. They are more likely indications of putting these areas into the slow lane for change in the first years of the Obama administration. I'm reminded of the way Mayor Greg Nickels filled out his top jobs when he took office in 2002, belatedly making some diversity appointments and putting some departments, like Neighborhoods, into remote Siberia.
Peter Callaghan of the Tacoma News-Tribune has an interesting column today, speculating on why Washington so rarely makes it into a cabinet post, even a last-gasp position. Bad breath? Too little clout in elections? Our dislike for local politicians who caper on the national stage? He notes there have been only three in history: Brock Adams, Carter's unhappy Transportation Secretary; Lewis Schwellenbach, Truman's Labor guy; and Richard Ballinger, Taft's pick for Interior.
There's one interesting runner-up, and that's former Seattle Mayor Dorm Braman. A tale hangs thereby. Braman, who was an excellent mayor but a thin-skinned one, got so angry at the gibes from radio talk show host Irving Clark that he up and quit. Nixon had just been elected, so Braman pulled strings with the Seattle insiders in the Nixon administration and landed a post as undersecretary of transportation. (He wanted the top job, but Nixon had promised it to Mass. Gov. John Volpe.)
Braman knew a lot about transportation, but the job didn't work out well. Volpe resented having Braman imposed on him, and he particularly disliked Braman's inside connection with John Ehlichman, Nixon's domestic policy chief and a fellow Seattleite. So Braman had little to do. Bored, he turned to a pet Seattle project, creating Freeway Park (kind of a highway project). His other lasting achievement was saving historic New Orleans from a freeway that would have mowed down old sections of the city.
Too bad he didn't solve the Viaduct.