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Hillary Clinton as Mrs. Foggybottom?

By Al Kamen
Friday, November 14, 2008

There's increasing chatter in political circles that the Obama camp is not overly happy with the usual suspects for secretary of state these days and that the field may be expanding beyond Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and perhaps former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).

There's talk, indeed, that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) now may be under consideration for the post. Her office referred any questions to the Obama transition staff; Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment.

The choice of the former presidential contender and Senate Armed Services Committee member would go a long way toward healing remaining divisions within the Democratic Party after the contentious primaries. Clinton has long been known for her work on international women's issues and human rights. The former first lady also could enhance Obama's efforts to restore U.S. standing among allies worldwide.

And Obama could put her in his speed-dial for a 3 a.m. phone call each morning.

Woman Behind the Woman Behind the Man Behind the Man

Meanwhile, Cathy Russell, who has served as administrative assistant to Vice President-elect Joe Biden, staff director on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a senior Justice Department official in the Clinton administration, is expected to be tapped as chief of staff to second lady-elect Jill Biden.

Russell is married to Clinton-era State Department chief of staff Tom Donilon, who is now heading the State Department transition team along with another former State Department counselor, Wendy Sherman.

Donilon and Sherman, each mentioned as a possible choice for deputy secretary of state, have ties to Fannie Mae, an organization the Obama transition is especially antsy about. Their connection to Fannie Mae wasn't mentioned in the Obama announcement Wednesday about their jobs on the transition team. Donilon was senior vice president and general counsel to the mortgage giant from 1999 to 2005. Sherman, more removed from the core Fannie Mae operation, was in charge of its charitable foundation in 1996 and 1997.

You Can't Buy Publicity Like This

Loop Fans may remember the inauspicious beginning for Federal Communications Commission chief Kevin Martin's decision to sponsor NASCAR driver David Gilliland in three races to boost public awareness of the Feb.17 switch to digital television. The $355,000 cost doesn't include a couple of hundred grand more for information booths and staff at the races, which appear to have drawn somewhat spotty crowds.

During the first race last month, the car, festooned with banners announcing the plan to go digital, crashed into a wall at the aptly named Martinsville Speedway in Virginia and was unable to finish the race.

Well, no problem -- there were still two races left. The second was Sunday in Phoenix, and hopes were running high until a nine-car pileup set the car on fire and it was again unable to finish.

People who criticized the NASCAR project as misguided and a waste of money wondered whether this might be a bad omen for the impending switch. Not at all, Martin told reporters after the second crash. "Except for the cars that win the races, the cars that are in wrecks get a lot of attention," he said, according to Reuters.

So the idea might be for Gilliland to crash it again if it looks as if he's not going to win Sunday in Miami?

Martin, a Bush appointee, was asked whether he intended to stay on when Obama takes over in January. "I don't have any plans to go anywhere yet," he said, adding that he might stay awhile to help with the digital conversion.

He may be one of the commissioners, but given the Democratic unhappiness with him, odds are he won't be chairman by sundown Jan. 20.

Tammy and the Cabinet

Those reading tea leaves about Barack Obama's favored choices for Cabinet secretaries should look no further than the president-elect's Veterans Day photo op. Joining Obama at a wreath-laying ceremony in Chicago was Tammy Duckworth, a National Guard helicopter pilot who lost both legs in combat in Iraq and now directs the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Duckworth, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006, has surfaced as the leading contender for secretary of Obama's Department of Veterans Affairs, several veterans advocates said.

"Tammy is an incredibly inspiring leader and she has the potential to be our generation's Max Cleland," said Paul Rieckhoff, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "She's been innovative, empathetic, intelligent, aggressive and forward-looking."

Cleland, a former Democratic senator from Georgia and decorated Vietnam War hero who lost three limbs in combat, headed Veterans Affairs under President Carter, and some say he could return there under Obama. Arnold Fisher, head of Fisher House Foundation, a leading veterans' charity, is said to be among the other contenders.

But veterans advocates say Duckworth's diverse background -- she was born in Bangkok in 1968 and raised in Hawaii -- and advocacy on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans makes her a compelling choice. Disabled Veterans of America is singing her praises, as is Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Duckworth has not been shy about her interest in the job, telling CNN this week: "When my commander in chief calls, I've always run for my helicopter and executed the mission I was given. And I would be deeply honored if President-elect Obama were to call."

Another option for Duckworth could be succeeding Obama in the Senate; she is among the leading contenders for the post, which Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) will fill after Obama steps down.

A dark horse is the incumbent, James Peake, appointed by Bush in 2007. A Peake aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the boss "has not yet made any plans, and his focus is on the transition."

Will He Stay or Will He Go?

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who said not long ago that it was inconceivable that he'd stay in his job under a Democratic administration, is likely to remain for a while if Obama asks him to, Pentagon officials told McClatchy.

Many of Gates's aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they expect the president-elect to ask Gates to stay.

On Monday, the transition co-chairman, John Podesta, wouldn't say whether Gates has been asked to stay in his job. Obama "has great respect for Secretary Gates," but before any decision is made, a transition team will be briefed at the Pentagon about "ongoing operations" and Obama will "render judgment as a result of and after those briefings occur and he's had a chance to meet with his key advisers," Podesta told McClatchy.

A Man, a Plan . . .

President Bush, in a speech yesterday in New York, called on Congress to approve "free-trade agreements with Colombia, Peru and South Korea." The White House transcript notes at the bottom of the page, "*Panama," not Peru.

With Philip Rucker

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