Commerce Secretary: The Cabinet-level curse?


U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson is only the latest man to hold the job to suffer bad luck. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

It seems there’s a bit of a curse attached to the position — and Bryson, who this week suffered a seizure while behind the wheel, leading to three traffic accidents — isn’t the only commerce secretary upon whom misfortune has fallen. A look back at commerce secretaries of yore reveals a preponderance of bad luck and controversy.

To wit:

Ron Brown, who held the job under former president Bill Clinton, was hailed as the first black Cabinet secretary. Brown was 56 in 1996, when the plane carrying him and 34 other people to attend an official trade mission crashed in Croatia. Brown, we should note, was the subject of an independent counsel investigation into his failure to pay taxes on business income when he died.

Howard Malcolm “Mac” Baldrige Jr., who served in the Reagan administration, also met an unfortunate end. Baldrige, who had been on the rodeo circuit as a young man, died when a horse he was riding fell and crushed him (doctors said the belt buckle he was wearing contributed to the fatal injury).

Before he was chief of staff to President Obama, Bill Daley was a commerce secretary under Clinton — and he once suffered an embarrassing public episode. In 1996, he passed out (in full view of C-SPAN cameras) during a White House news conference announcing his appointment. As fellow Clinton appointee Bill Richardson spoke, a very pale Daley blinked, looking uncomfortable, and then crumpled to the floor. Vice President Al Gore helped him offstage, while President Clinton reassured reporters that it seemed like he was okay. (Was it something Richardson said?)

And its not just health problems that have plagued commerce secretaries. Nixon appointee Maurice Stans was thought to be the bag man for the money that funded that little Watergate break-in. Stans was indicted in 1973 for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury but was acquitted in 1974.

Tragedies and scandal aside, then there’s the Commerce Department’s status as something approximating the Cabinet’s broom closet. The agency has long been criticized for having a too-sprawling (i.e. vague) mission and for being a haven for political patronage.

In the George H.W. Bush administration, it was jokingly referred to it as “Bush Gardens.” Even former commerce secretary Robert Mosbacher once called it “nothing better than a hall closet where you throw in everything that you don’t know what to do with.”

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.

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