It’s a tough life in the Cabinet

Columnist November 8, 2011

Cabinet secretaries, beware. You arrived in Washington with, by definition, a good reputation as a businessman, governor, mayor or academic. A Cabinet job, you thought, could only enhance your renown.

That was the case with former defense secretary Bob Gates, and— if he lasts another year — with current Pentagon chief Leon Panetta.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

But in recent years, the odds that you may leave this town in obscurity or even ignominy seem to have increased dramatically.

The latest example is President Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winner and justly famous physicist. Now he’s battling allegations of presiding over hugely wasteful grants to now-bankrupt Solyndra and two other firms — and, the agency inspector general reported Monday, to an electric-transmission-line project.

Colin Powell, a four-star general and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, was secretary of state under George W. Bush. But, as Powell has lamented, his obituaries may well lead with his U.N. speech that helped persuade the country to go to war in Iraq.

Henry Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development under Bill Clinton, left town under a cloud after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about payments he’d made to his mistress.

Paul O’Neill, the highly regarded former head of Alcoa, was bounced by Bush II.

Donald Rumsfeld left the defense secretary’s job on a high note in 1977 to make a bundle in the private sector. The redux? Not such a high note.

A few officials — such as former HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo, now the governor of New York — have moved up. But others seem to have returned home to relative obscurity. It’s hard to even remember who they were.

Remember Clinton’s commerce secretary? William Daley? What ever happened to him? Oh, yeah . . .

If the walls could talk

Herman Cain’s on-the-record accuser, Sharon Bialek, unveiled her allegation of unwanted sexual advances by the Republican presidential contender in a curious venue: a room at the Friars Club in Manhattan.

Bialek’s attorney, Gloria Allred, had, after all, sued the club years ago for sex discrimination on behalf of a woman who’d been denied membership. The club is renowned as a place where famous show-business folks have roasted one another for years.

And the news conference was not in just any room, but the famous Milton Berle Room, named for the legendary comic and host of NBC’s “Texaco Star Theater” in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If anything, the room is even more famous this week.

If you act quickly, you’ll have a great opportunity to lunch in the room where a bit of political history was made. Yes, for a “suggested donation” of $500, $1,000 or $2,500, you can have lunch Monday in Uncle Miltie’s room at a fundraiser for Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.).

West’s district includes Broward County, which we always thought of as Jackie Gleason territory, but maybe Berle won’t mind. Unclear whether lunch will include a quartet to perform the signature opening song for the show, a la the “Texaco singers”:

Oh, we’re the men of Texaco

We work from Maine to Mexico

There’s nothing like this Texaco of ours!

(After a few more verses, Berle would come out in drag or other outlandish garb.)

A power more super

There’s increasing angst on the Hill about whether the “supercommittee” will come up with an acceptable plan to resolve the nation’s debt problems. Anxiety runs highest in the military and in the House Armed Services Committee, where they are seeking aid from above.

Two Armed Services subcommittees held a joint hearing last week with top military brass to discuss the situation and the looming budget disaster.

“I remain severely concerned that we’ve already gone too far” in cutting the armed services budget,” said one subcommittee chairman, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), with “devastating” cuts if the supercommittee fails.

“Further cuts,” said Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) could “jeopardize” the country’s “status as the global power that is pre-eminent.”

When the other subcommittee chairman, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), entered — a bit late because he was tied up on a call — he called on the Divine Power for a little help here.

“I’d like to back up a little bit and start the meeting with a prayer, if I could,” said Akin, a former seminarian with a divinity degree who has started hearings with a prayer before.

“Father,” he began, “we thank you for the people who serve us in uniform, and we just ask please now for your wisdom as we take a look at the decisions that we need to be making in this nation, and I ask your blessing on everybody here, and help us to make good and wise decisions. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.”

Well, it’s looking more and more as though some higher intervention is going to be needed.

One for the ages

It’s rare that the Supreme Court’s youngest and newest justice, Elena Kagan, makes a misstep during oral arguments.

It’s even rarer that the court’s oldest and most sober-minded justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, says something that gets a laugh.

But both things happened Monday, our colleague Robert Barnes reported, as the court heard a case involving two Americans whose son was born in Jerusalem. Congress had passed a law saying his U.S. passport could say he was born in Israel.

The State Department says it has to be “Jerusalem” only, to avoid taking sides in a never-ending Middle East conflict over the ancient city’s sovereignty.

The couple’s attorney noted that the law provides for listing “Palestine” as long as the person was born before 1948, when Israel became a state.

“Well,” said Kagan, who was born in 1960, “you have to be very old to say Palestine.”

Without missing a beat, Ginsburg, who was born in 1933, replied:

“Not all that old.”

Kagan joined in the courtroom’s laughter.

For the record — and for the first time — the court now has a majority of justices born in 1948 or later.

We await your entry

Keep ’em coming. We’ve gotten some stellar responses to our contest, in which we’re asking readers to submit their ideas for what phrase Obama will be known for (think Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” or JFK’s “Ask not”) but it’s still anybody’s game.

You can find all the rules on
the In the Loop blog, at wapo.st/loopcontest.

It’s a two-part contest: We’re asking what phrase Obama has already said that will go into the history books as his defining phrase, or what he should say. Enter either part or both. Deadline is next Monday.

In the loo . . .

Americans can sleep a little more soundly knowing that toilets are officially off the U.S. controlled-weapons list.

A recent letter kindly informed a relieved Congress that toilets of a type used on military transport aircraft were off the U.S. Munitions List. Unclear how or why they were listed, but once they were on, it no doubt took time, scrutiny and endless meetings to scrub them.

And despite the removal of the johns from the category that includes nukes, firearms and chemical weapons, please don’t let your guard down when entering the WC: As two federal workers learned recently when they were injured by an exploding porcelain throne, toilets can still be dangerous.

With Emily Heil

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