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Rushing to Restock the Cabinet

President Bush began his White House week at the lectern in the Roosevelt Room, introducing a new Cabinet member -- a ritual that's become familiar on TV over the past month.

In this case, the nominee was not exactly new. Michael O. Leavitt, named the new secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, has been the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency since 2003.

Bush made a brief statement about Leavitt, who made an even briefer statement about his plans. Then the president shook Leavitt's hand and left the room. It all looked abrupt to the point of being perfunctory, considering that Leavitt's new department is responsible for more of the federal budget than any other by far (including Defense). But it was consistent with the treatment given other new Cabinet members in recent days.

The new Bush Cabinet will have new people in nine of its 15 departments, plus new players as EPA administrator, United Nations representative and National Security Advisor. Filling all these vacancies at once requires some high-speed headhunting to be sure. But as the appointee assembly line rolls day after day, the impression left is of a process more relentless than thoughtful. The Senate won't mount hearings on any of these nominations until mid-January, but the president seems bent on filling every slot just as fast as possible -- and well before he leaves for Christmas in Crawford, Texas.

There is about this a distinct air of the Bush style. Intent on hunting big game on the domestic front in his second term, the president wants a reliable Cabinet that leaves the policy decisions to the White House. So why dither over it? Put your crew together and let's hit the holidays with the inbox cleared out.

In fact, the president would have his full complement of department heads even now had one not already blown up on him. Bernard B. Kerik, the former commissioner of police and of prisons in New York City, had his moment to stand next to the president in the Roosevelt Room last week. But stories sprouted immediately detailing Kerik's business dealings and other questionable connections. Shortly after dark on Friday night, Kerik pulled the plug.

His official reason was the notorious "nanny problem." He employed a (possibly illegal) alien and paid no employer taxes. But was that the critical failing? More stories keep tumbling out: millions of dollars made in months after leaving office; busts of himself as gifts; allegations of kept women. Suddenly, it seems that a finger drawn across Kerik's desk would have produced enough dirt to raise doubts.

The question now is not whether Kerik should have withdrawn; the question is how he got appointed in the first place. His sponsor was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but did that entitle Kerik to be whisked through the White House's pre-nomination process on his own recognizance? What was the rush?

Kerik was named before the FBI had completed its usual, rigorous investigation of his fitness. And it seems unlikely Kerik would have given the FBI the same reassuring answers he gave to White House staff. His attorneys would have known what happened to Henry Cisneros, an appointee in President Clinton's first Cabinet, who lied to the FBI about payments to a mistress. Cisneros found himself in a criminal proceeding that cost him his Cabinet post, his personal and professional reputation and a fortune in legal fees.

In the larger story of the second Bush term, Kerik will be no more than a footnote. But his case raises larger questions about the restocking of the Cabinet this time around.

It's getting done fast, but is it getting done well? There's a hint of haste even about some of the returnees, as if to say: "We aren't satisfied with this one but we couldn't find anyone we liked better right now." Surely this was the mood surrounding John Snow's retention at Treasury. So, in the end, is this the best possible cast for the drama ahead, or is it just the best we could do in a tight time frame?

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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