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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 06/13/2012

John Bryson’s accident brings sudden fame for the unknown Cabinet secretary

U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson in Mumbai earlier this year. (Rajanish Kakade/AP)

Poor John Bryson! Be honest: How many of you could have coughed up the name of the commerce secretary last week, even if a Jeopardy Daily Double were on the line?

In the year since he was nominated for the job by President Obama, Bryson had never once made it onto the front page of the Washington Post, New York Times or Wall Street Journal — until, of course, the bizarre series of traffic accidents in southern California Saturday that prompted him to take a medical leave.

For those who assume a certain grandeur automatically comes with a Cabinet post, the incident suggested otherwise.

Bryson, 68, had what officials described as a seizure while driving his own car, alone. No security? Turns out that’s how commerce secretaries roll when traveling on personal business, we’re told.

White House officials said they were only told about the accidents a day after they happened, and the president said he only learned about it Monday morning. Face it: If this had been, say, Tim Geithner, there’d have been a 3 a.m. phone call and an instant cable-news stakeout.

Ron Brown in 1996 (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Is commerce secretary the low man on the high end of the Washington totem pole? Probably no more so than any of the other Cabinet posts that huddle in the shadow of the Big Four: State, Defense, Treasury and Justice.

“It’s a hugely prestigious position,” insisted Juleanna Glover, a Republican lobbyist and frequent hostess who has observed the Beltway status game over the years. “Somewhere, there’s a high-dollar Romney donor who’s dreaming of being commerce secretary.”

Malcolm Baldrige in 1985. (James K. Atherton/The Washington Post)
Indeed, the title has traditionally gone to money guys who helped lasso big donors for the president, even if many (remember Don Evans?) tended to fade quickly into the background. It’s a job with a broad and somewhat unwieldy mandate — the Commerce Department promotes economic growth but also oversees divisions like the Census Bureau and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Georgette and Robert Mosbacher in 1989. (Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post)
Occasionally, a big personality draws more attention to the job: Reagan’s pick Malcolm Baldrige, an experienced cowboy who died while in office after a freak rodeo accident. Bill Clinton’s pal Ron Brown, the first African-American named to the post. Bob Mosbacher, the rich, suave Texan whose third wife Georgette, a glamazon cosmetics exec, took the town by storm in the late ’80s.

Not so much Bryson, a low-key utility company exec new to D.C. and national office. As a mid-term replacement for Gary Locke (now enjoying rock-star status as the first Chinese-American ambassador to China), Bryson missed the media buzz accorded to the team that comes in with a new president. But Glover found him to be “funny, thoughtful, gracious, and very respectful” when she met him at a luncheon for Chinese CEOs during his very first week on the job. And now, anyway, you know his name.

Read related: Commerce Secretary John Bryson undergoing tests to determine cause of seizure, 6/12/12

The Fix: John Bryson, Commerce Secretary, explained, 6/12/12

Federal Eye: John Bryson’s memo to employees

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By  |  05:00 AM ET, 06/13/2012

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