Kathleen Sebelius, punching bag

Al Kamen
Columnist October 30, 2013

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius spent Wednesday morning doing a star turn as the Obama administration’s latest piñata of the season, stepping in for Hillary “Benghazi” Clinton, who spent a few months hanging in that spot as secretary of state, taking the place of Attorney General Eric “ ‘Black Panthers’ and ‘Fast and Furious’ ” Holder.

Sebelius spent more than three hours answering questions — and sitting through speeches — from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, apologizing for the obvious. Unlike Clinton’s and Holder’s “scandals,” there’s no wiggle room, no denying the disaster of the health-care crawl-out.

So Sebelius took responsibility for the glitches and promised to get them fixed.

“I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of HealthCare.gov,” Sebelius said of the online disaster.

She apologized to folks unable to buy health insurance because of the flawed Web site. The problems are “fixable,” she said.

And there was an obituary-worthy quote. “Hold me accountable for the debacle,” Sebelius said. “I’m responsible.”

While Sebelius squirmed, Clinton continued her post-Cabinet life of giving speeches, raising money and, presumably, working on her 2016 presidential campaign. She’s been stumping for old friend Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia.

Holder, whom we had last seen in New Zealand, is in Morocco this week, speaking at the Arab Forum on Asset Recovery and the Institut Supérieur de la Magistrature.

We’re thinking those two are having much more fun.

Less strange than fiction

John Owens, nominated by President Obama for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, may not be familiar to most people. But what if he were a character in the legal-themed rom-com “Legally Blonde”? He’d practically be famous.

Owens once feared he had been lampooned in the “Blonde” franchise. And with good reason. Amanda Brown, his former classmate at Stanford Law, penned the novel “Elle One” (the title is a play on “L1,” Scott Turow’s classic book about law-school life). “Elle One” was renamed after it was translated into the big screen as “Legally Blonde,” the story of an unlikely legal student named Elle Woods.

In an essay he wrote for Legal Times in 2001, Owens recalled hearing rumors that Brown was working on a “tell-all” about their class. He recounted watching the movie and reading the book with dread.

The movie, starring Reese Witherspoon, contained nothing that alarmed him. But a character in the novel named “Johnno” sounded familiar to Owens, mostly because their names sound similar. Was he Johnno? He figured not, since the character was “not the brightest bulb on the tree.”

But perhaps, he mused, portraying him as a dummy might be “Amanda’s poetic-license revenge”? Finally, he simply asked the author. Turns out he failed to inspire any of her literary creations.

His lesson from the experience was “not to wait until the big trial to treat someone well; start at the beginning.” You never know who’s noticing — and whether they’ll someday get a book deal.

The essay might have been forgotten, but it surfaced, we hear, as Owens submitted, as part of the vetting process, everything he’d ever written.

Who knows how the Senate will handle the slew of judicial nominees — including Owens — but it sounds as if he’s more suited to wearing black (as in a judge’s robe) than Elle Woods’s signature pink.

A Foggy Bottom family

Like father, like daughter?

For Sheba Crocker, not exactly. Crocker, just nominated by the president as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, is following in the footsteps of her dad, Chester Crocker, who was also an assistant secretary of state (for African affairs, in the 1980s).

But though the two share DNA, and perhaps soon a job title, there are some big differences. Crocker is a Democrat; her father, a Republican. The elder Crocker served under President Ronald Reagan, while the younger served in the National Security Council during the Bill Clinton administration.

Sheba Crocker’s Senate confirmation hearings won’t be her first brush with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She came up — sort of — when her father famously took fire from Sen. Jesse Helms during his confirmation hearing.

Helms, it seems, was skeptical, and made an oblique reference to Sheba — who was 13 at the time. “I’m sure when you go home at night that your wife and children are glad to see you, and your dog wags its tail, but I have some questions about whether you are the man to carry out the president’s policies,” said the North Carolina Republican.

Jobs to be filled

There may not be an ambassador nominated for that fine post in France, but incumbent Charles Rivkin, fresh from being cuffed about in Paris over NSA eavesdropping, is expected home shortly. President Obama announced Tuesday evening that Rivkin, a major 2008 Obama bundler who’s close to Secretary of State John Kerry, is the pick to be assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs.

Other announced nominees: Obama mega-bundler and former Chicago White Sox player Mark Gilbert as ambassador to New Zealand; major campaign contributor and Boston lawyer Robert Barber as ambassador to Iceland; Jonathan Elkind, principal deputy assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the Energy Department, to move up to be assistant secretary for international affairs; career Foreign Service officer Tina Kaidanow, most recently deputy ambassador in Kabul, as the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism; Ted Mitchell, former president of Occidental College and now CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, as an undersecretary of education; Massie Ritsch, deputy assistant secretary for external affairs and outreach at the Education Department, and before that at OpenSecrets.org, to move up to be assistant secretary for communications and outreach; William LaPlante, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, to move up to assistant secretary for acquisition; and Rhea Suh, assistant interior secretary for policy, management and budget, to be assistant secretary for fish and wildlife.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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