The making of Ronald Reagan's Cabinet ended on the same non-ideological, non-political note on which it began: the choice of a non-Reaganite bureaucrat as secretary of education after rejection of a Reaganite politician.
Secretary-designate Terrel (Ted) Bell is a career school administrator and member in good standing of the "educationist" bureaucracy who campaigned to create the department he will soon head under Reagan's mandate to abolish it. Bell's position runs counter to Reagan's campaign stance. So do his public opinions on busing, bilingual education and the federal leviathan's role in grass-roots education.
The Reaganite alternative was uniquely qualified to preside over the dissolution of the Department of Education: Illinois state Rep. Don Totten, a hard-core conservative who backed Reagan for president before Reagan backed himself. But Totten's philosophical compatibility with and political support for Reagan no more qualified him for the Cabinet than Bell's past record disqualified him.
Almost surely, this choice never reached Reagan. Instead, Reagan was faced with a yes-or-no decision on Bell alone. Hearing no opposition to him, Reagan said yes. Thus was completed a Cabinet evoking praise from Reagan's pre-election critics for the new president's "pragmatism" but one hardly suited to carry out his campaign pledges.
Actually, immediately following the election, the education transition team considered Ted Bell, read his resume and passed over him. Following two years as a high school teacher, Bell began 36 years as an educational bureaucrat (Utah state education commissioner since 1976). The cap of his career came as U.S. commissioner of education in the Ford administration, during which he launced the bilingual education program, an exercie of federal power that now threatens young Hispanic-Americans with built-in second-class citizenship.
Upon leaving Washington in 1976, Bell endorsed the need for a Cabinet-level education department. That fit his revised view as he then described them: "I came here feeling that education was almost exclusively a state responsibility. My view has shifted . . . Congress and the federal statutes can no longer defer to the states and say, 'You take the lead.' The federal government must guarantee certain rights, and in doing so, it should specify the ends of education and provide the financial support to meet those ends."
Bell's 1976 farewell interview with Time magazine confirmed his new interventionism: "[The federal government's] responsibility ought to be to correct the gross national deficiencies in education." As for busing, the most disliked of all federal "corrections," Bell said, "it is hard to find another solution."
With Bell apparently passed over, the choice of education secretary was one of Ronald Reagan's favorite people: Dr. W. Glenn Campbell, director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. What better culmination of Campbell's record of conservative scholarship than to serve in his friend's Cabinet and dissolve a superfluous government department?
But Campbell said no. So did several other conservatives (including Dallin Oaks, president of Brigham Young University) who were asked about their availability. That's when state Rep. Totten belatedly entered the picture.
Based on traditional standards of political eligibility, nobody could be more deserving than Don Totten. Through 1976 and 1980, he had battled for Reagan against an incumbent Republican president, an incumbent Republican governor and the Illinois Republican establishment. But no such Cabinet-making standards have been followed by Reagan's chief aide, Edwin Meese.
Bell's name popped up again thanks to Dr. Richard Wirthlin, Reagan's polluster-political adviser and a friend of Bell from Wirthlin's Utah days. Meese approved, and the name went to Reagan with endorsement from Utah's two conservative Republican senators. Not until Jan. 5 did word seep out, too late to build a backfire. Meese, who had let Reaganite William Simon dangle long enough to destroy him as secretary of the Treasury, pushed non-Reaganite Bell with unusual expedition.
Totten was asked if he wanted to be Bell's deputy secretary but declined, preferring Illinois politics and a possible 1984 U.S. Senate candidacy. The idea of a Bell-Totten duo dispels theories of any anti-conservative conspiracy, suggesting instead a Cabinet selection process mindlessly free of political or ideolgical coherence.
That process has produced a Cabinet where Ted Bell is the rule, not the exception. Hardly more than four of its members are committed to the goals for their departments repeatedly pledged by Reagan. The performance of transition chief Meese makes him an unlikely ideological watchdog. As for Reagan himself, the president-elect is not inclined to that role, either. That explains the concern of those who had been certain that the election of Ronald Reagan would bring radical change.