A senior White House official, reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of President Reagan's Cabinet members, was asked recently who among them has come to the Oval Office during the past 18 months bearing bad news the president might not want to hear.
He paused, then answered, "Sen. Pete Domenici."
When asked which of the 16 Cabinet members would be most valuable in helping Republicans during this fall's congressional campaigns, one of Reagan's senior political advisers said, "I'm glad I'm not Ed Rollins," referring to the White House political director. "The Cabinet officers have each committed to two weeks of campaigning, and it's hard to figure out where you'd want to use them."
As the Reagan administration nears midterm, these frank, typical judgments from those close to the president of the limitations and deficiences of the Reagan Cabinet reflect their feelings that, in the words of one administration official, this is a Cabinet "without superstars." The judgments from outsiders are much harsher.
Instead, it is a Cabinet that rates highest for loyalty. Now that Alexander M. Haig Jr. is gone as secretary of state, it contains few dissenters and no solo fliers.
Cabinet members are quick to point out that the president is the only elected member of the executive branch, other than the vice president, and that he comes with plenty of strong convictions. Rather than the corporate-style "Cabinet government" promised by Reagan during the 1980 presidential campaign, most important de- cisions are made among the small group of White House advisers.
That is fine with the Cabinet. For the most part its members are a collection of wealthy, middle-aged males, steeped in the ways of board rooms and corporate management, who live by the executive branch equivalent of Sam Rayburn's famous congressional adage: "To get along, go along."
Jimmy Carter brought into his Cabinet men who had won elections and brought with them their own political bases: Edmund S. Muskie, Cecil D. Andrus, Neil Goldschmidt, Moon Landrieu, Brock Adams. But the Reagan Cabinet has a markedly lighter political weight. One of the most frequently heard criticisms is that the group lacks sufficient political sensitivity.
One Cabinet member who agrees was asked recently for an example of how the administration has been hurt because of this.
"How many examples do you want?" he said, ticking off such embarrassments of the first 18 months as the furor caused by the decision to give tax exemptions to some private schools that are racially discriminatory.
"It is a Cabinet of businessmen, not politicians," a top administration official said. This is precisely what Reagan had intended. "One of my basic requirements," he said during the 1980 campaign, "is I want people who don't want a job in government. I want people who will have to step down to take a position in government."
Like those of other Cabinets, Reagan's appointees have fallen to the temptation of the perquisites of government service. Reagan ordered his Cabinet members the day after taking office "not to redecorate their offices." In the first few months, at least six Cabinet members did so anyway, some spending thousands of dollars to improve their private bathrooms and dining rooms.
Like any other Cabinet of any other president, it is one in which some members clearly outshine the others. There is general agreement both inside and outside the administration that the most skilled and effective members of the Reagan Cabinet are Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, Transportation Secretary Andrew L. (Drew) Lewis Jr. and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
At the other end of the table, there is nearly unanimous agreement, even from some of those closest and most loyal to the president, that Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. are conspicuous administration liabilities.
Between these two groups is a collection of Cabinet members who, nearly everyone agrees, have some obvious strong points and some serious flaws. It is widely anticipated that there will be a reshuffling of the Cabinet after the Nov. 2 elections.
In a series of interviews recently, many Cabinet members, White House aides, other administration officials, members of Congress, lobbyists and academics assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the individual members of the Reagan Cabinet.
From his sluggish start, there were no indications that Treasury Secretary Regan would become a front-line spokesman for economic policy. A Wall Streeter who likes to remind those around him that he got a degree in English and not in economics, Regan was faintly suspect among some of the president's inner circle as a closet Carter supporter.
But there is wide agreement that Regan has matured in the job. He deftly installed his own man, Roger Porter, at the Cabinet Council on Economic Affairs, thereby running economic policy from the White House rather than the Treasury.
Not only did this give Regan a working relationship with the White House staff, it enabled him eventually to bypass the ardent supply-side economic theorists who had been put in key subordinate positions at Treasury.
"He had a bunch of ideologues telling him it was all black and white. Now, with them gone, he has a better ear for subtleties and complexities," an administration official said.
But the innately optimistic Regan has been faulted by insiders who say that, despite the economy's troubles, he has not prepared the president for the possibility that the administration's economic strategy might fail.
"Sooner or later, Regan and Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman will have to bring the bad news," an informed administration official said. "But it hasn't happened yet. The president and his economic advisers believed there would be a strong recovery, lower inflation, a sustained decline in interest rates and an investment boom. But no one has yet told the president there is a substantial risk it won't happen. The president is a big guy, but these fellas haven't told him."
"Oh, baloney!" Regan bristled at the suggestion that he hasn't brought bad news into the Oval Office. "Whoever said that hasn't seen whenever there's something tough to do, the way . . . the others give it to me to handle. I break it to the president that this is what's going on."
Stockman's place in history as the architect of Reagan's initial nine-month blitz of budget-cutting is secure, but questions remain about his staying power in the administration.
An associate said Stockman is "learning to be a better bureaucrat" and wants to stay on after November. "Stockman is still the only guy I know who can take a budget to bed with him and learn every page," Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige said.
But Stockman sometimes is faulted inside the White House for only delivering the bottom line. "Dave's problem is that he'll say, 'Mr. President, because of our approach, there will actually be more money for student financial aid.' But he won't tell him that he's wiped out three programs," a White House official said.
By far the Cabinet member most widely respected by friends and critics alike is Transportation Secretary Lewis.
"There's no question that the one who really has his stuff together, who really knows what he's doing, is Lewis," a Republican political consultant said. An aide to a congressional Democrat added, "He's the best Cabinet officer we've ever had to deal with."
Lewis, a self-assured and wisecracking former business consultant, impressed the White House with his handling of the air traffic controllers' strike last summer. But where Lewis proves to be a beacon of light in an otherwise dimly lit Cabinet is his political acumen.
One senior White House aide said Lewis is the best politician in the Cabinet, and is so smooth at laying the groundwork for what he wants that he sometimes arouses suspicion among other Cabinet members.
Lewis, who ran for governor of Pennsylvania as a Republican in the Watergate year of 1974, started out that campaign as "Drew Who?" and wound up with 46 percent of the vote. He tackles assignments with a pragmatic outlook that others find impressive.
"He's not an ideologue. He just says, what do we need to do and how do we do it?" said Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), chairman of a House subcommittee that deals regularly with Lewis.
The Cabinet member thought to have the deepest intellectual ability and certainly the broadest Washington experience is Defense Secretary Weinberger, a veteran of the government's behemoth agencies, the old Health, Education and Welfare Department in the Nixon-Ford years and now the Pentagon. In the Reagan Cabinet, Weinberger also enjoys the most direct pipeline to the president, an advantage he has used early and often.
One White House aide recalled meetings at which the president would be joined by counselor Edwin Meese III (who has Cabinet rank), chief of staff James A. Baker III and Stockman. But as long as the diminutive Pentagon chief was there, "it was very much Weinberger, the president and bystanders," he said.
If there has been disappointment with Weinberger in the White House, it stems from his rigidity on matters involving his turf. While other Cabinet members were being forced to swallow budget cuts, Weinberger displayed no restraint at the Pentagon, despite his former reputation as "Cap the Knife," a nickname earned when Weinberger ran OMB in the early 1970s.
This rankles some White House aides who say they believe Weinberger was captured by the voracious appetite of the military spending machine beyond what was necessary to fulfill Reagan's pledge to rebuild the nation's defense.
In some respects, Weinberger had an easy time of it in the early Reagan Cabinet because his chief adversary was Haig, an outsider. Secretary of State George P. Shultz is expected to be more of a team player as well as an influential heavyweight, and Weinberger may not get his way as frequently as he has.
Weinberger, too, took some heat for his seemingly nonstop world tours, which earned him the nickname "Cap the Suitcase" from Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). "I saw him in Paris and then in London, and I said, 'Who in the hell is watching the Pentagon?' " Dole recalled.
When it comes to unabashed guts and bluntness, Cabinet honors go almost unanimously to Commerce Secretary Baldrige. He is a gentlemanly, slow-talking Connecticut industrialist, a former professional rodeo rider who keeps a lasso by his desk for idle moments and who once playfully lassoed a secretary by her ankles.
Baldrige also led the way with lavish office redecorations. The Better Government Association, a non-profit group, reported that he spent $1,683 just to refurbish his executive washroom.
But Baldrige has earned the respect of his colleagues for his straightforward warnings to Reagan on the economy. He offered the president a gloomy assessment of the economic program during an Oval Office meeting last winter. But Reagan didn't want to hear it. Baldrige later told friends, "I broke my pick" with the president.
Republicans have long identified with captains of industry, but not always with entrepreneurs. Baldrige is an exception in that he has tried to put the administration's emphasis behind the high-technology "sunrise" companies that are expected to fuel economic growth of the future.
"Baldrige is our best friend in the Cabinet," a lobbyist for electronics firms in California's Silicon Valley said.
There was no doubt about the agenda of Interior Secretary James G. Watt. He is admired among colleagues for getting off to the quickest start while they were still finding how to get to their offices.
In a Cabinet of businessmen not known for their ideology, Watt stands out not only for his intensely held views. He is also one of the few who aren't independently wealthy, and he did not spend government money fixing up his office.
What he did was move quickly to establish his supremacy not only at Interior but also in the Cabinet Council on Natural Resources and Environment, giving him influence over energy policy as well.
"Watt plays Energy Secretary James B. ) Edwards very well," said an insider who has watched. "He is very respectful, he defers to Edwards. Then he kills him on the issues when he wants to."
Those who criticize Watt say he doesn't have the ability to judge the reaction of his critics. "His one weak spot is that he's not very good at dealing with the enemy," said a conservative congressman who knows Watt and likes him. "You don't have to love the Sierra Club, but you should know they have the ability to tie you up in knots."
Watt worries White House aides who think he would be willing to quit and do so dramatically. Watt has said often, as he did in a recent interview, that he told Reagan on accepting the Interior job, "You'll need to back me and back me, and when you no longer can, you'll need to fire me."
The White House doesn't harbor any such concerns about Health and Human Services Secretary Richard S. Schweiker, whose metamorphosis from moderate Senate Republican to true-blue Reaganaut is complete and unquestioned.
Sent to the front lines of the administration's attack on many social programs, Schweiker has carried it out dutifully but without the zeal of Watt. "The zest is lacking," a White House insider said.
Schweiker was whipsawed by the administration's sudden retreat on the explosive Social Security cuts it proposed last summer. The White House also undercut Schweiker's support of stronger health warnings on cigarettes. "I accepted it," he said of the White House decision. "The president has the total prerogative."
Reagan's prerogative explains why Attorney General William French Smith survives as he has, despite a string of embarrassing legislative and personal episodes. He is first and foremost Reagan's lawyer, and the client likes what he gets.
But many White House officials think Smith has cost Reagan more, politically, than has any other Cabinet member. His fumbling of the Voting Rights Act renewal is viewed as the administration's greatest lost opportunity of the first 18 months.
"He screwed around with it more than a year," and eventually the president signed something he could have endorsed right from the start, one White House official said. "He turned it into a political disaster."
Not to mention other political disasters, such as the proposal to provide tax exemptions to private schools that discriminate; the disclosure that Smith had received a $50,000 severance payment after serving as a director of a California steel company, or Smith's taking a controversial tax deduction for an oil and gas investment. Under fire but unrepentant, Smith returned the payment and retreated on the tax deduction.
"Where can we use him?" a Reagan political adviser groaned, although there were no plans to send the attorney general onto the campaign trail anyway. "We're already strong in Beverly Hills."
In a Cabinet not filled with ambassadors from special interests, Agriculture Secretary John R. Block is an exception. In the view of his colleagues and many White House officials, Block is an earnest, free-market farmer who wants to represent farmers, even though outsiders question whether he has done a good job at it.
The task hasn't been made any easier by Reagan's reluctance to negotiate a new long-term grain agreement with the Soviet Union, and the most precarious farm economy in 50 years.
With such problems at home, Block has traveled abroad often, ostensibly to push U.S. exports, leaving behind criticism that he's not in touch with his department. "They ought to take away his travel card and make him stay in the office for a month," a Senate Republican said.
While some White House aides find her windy and tendentious, U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick occupies a secure niche in the Reagan Cabinet. Reagan both likes and values her, White House officials said. She is the only Democrat and woman in the group, and Reagan identifies with her ideological journey to the right. She is an academic in a non-academic Cabinet, a "neoconservative" amid conservatives about whom there is nothing "neo."
One White House official said "you have to wipe the slate clean" with Kirkpatrick because of her celebrated sparring with Haig. "Now that Haig's gone, you have to give her another chance."
William E. Brock, the U.S. trade representative, is a respected but low-profile member of the Cabinet. Along with Lewis, he's one of the few political minds in the group. But as a moderate Republican Brock has had difficulty earning the trust of Reaganauts. Still, White House aides speak approvingly of his work.
"Brock is under-appreciated for his sensitivity to a lot of the trade issues and a lot of the inherent conflicts in U.S. trade policy, protectionism vs. jobs and things like that. I think he's done a good job walking the fine line . . . ," one presidential assistant said.
Another Cabinet member walking fine lines is Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell, a Utah educator whose intellectual depth is acknowledged on Capitol Hill and in the education lobby.
Caught between the powerful teachers' lobby that helped spawn the department and Reagan's promise to abolish it, Bell has devoted much of his time to finding a middle ground that so far has satisfied neither side.
Bell's job has been made especially difficult because, more than any other, his department was staffed by the administration with hard-line, ideological conservatives who have kept up the pressure to reduce the federal role in education.
"Many conservatives are extremely critical of me," Bell said in an interview. "They're coming at me. When they said dismantle the department, they meant do away with it."
Dismantling also is the agenda for Energy Secretary Edwards, but few in the administration think he'll be around to hang the "closed" sign on his door.
Edwards, the only former governor in the Cabinet, is expected to leave by the fall for the president's office at the Medical University of South Carolina after nearly two rocky years in which Stockman and Watt dominated energy policy. While Edwards has learned more about the job, by his own admission he never got out from under his lame-duck status.
"Ted Bell and I were in a completely different light," Edwards recalled. "Our views were heard, but it was always--we were temporary."
By the very nature of his position, less is known about how William J. Casey, director of the CIA, has fared. One senior White House insider said Casey serves Reagan well by delivering analyses without adding recommendations. Another official said it's difficult to determine how much independent ability Casey brings to the post because he often just reads from prepared papers.
His former deputy, Adm. Bobby R. Inman, was a favorite in Congress, but Casey is not trusted by some members of the Intelligence committees. "Even if Casey was telling the truth with his hand on a stack of Bibles, I wouldn't believe him," one committee Democrat said. "He'll tell you something and you really don't know."
Two Cabinet members are mentioned almost unanimously as the greatest liabilities in the Cabinet: HUD Secretary Pierce and Labor Secretary Donovan.
In the case of Pierce, the only black in the Cabinet and a former New York lawyer, some White House officials had expressed hope that he would turn out to be the "sleeper" of the group by exceeding their expectations. But Pierce disappointed them with a style so reticent that he lived up to the nickname "Silent Sam."
A political consultant observed that "he ought to be a major asset to the administration" in appealing to blacks and minorities in this fall's congressional campaigns. But instead, Pierce has demonstrated no flair for inspiring those groups about Reagan's programs.
Pierce apparently was so removed from the writing of a controversial urban policy report in his own department--suggesting a greatly curtailed federal role in helping cities--that he fumbled questions about it at a news conference. He seemed ignorant of a summary of the document, which had been distributed at a Cabinet council meeting at which he and Reagan were present.
Pierce has some defenders. One administration official said Pierce had held steady under fire from special interests when the White House slashed his budget deeper than any other. "He's got the worst job in the Cabinet," this official added, "and he's terrific."
No such enthusiasm exists among the White House staff for Donovan. Reagan recently reaffirmed his support for the embattled labor secretary after a special prosecutor said he could find "insufficient credible evidence" to prosecute Donovan following a series of allegations linking him to organized crime figures.
But Donovan's problem runs deeper, White House officials said. They said they believe he has proven costly to Reagan by failing to build bridges with organized labor.
"Here is a guy who's a blue-collar Catholic in an administration which won largely because of blue-collar Catholics," a Republican political consultant said. "Donovan should be out there doing a lot of coalition building," but instead he's become a focal point of labor's opposition to the administration, the consultant added.
One Reagan insider, who was an early and enthusiastic Donovan advocate, lamented that Donovan has no working relationship with AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland. "Lane Kirkland is a political fact of life and you have to deal with him," he said.
Donovan has pushed ahead with the administration's agenda of scaling back worker health and safety rules and relaxing affirmative action requirements. But there have been some embarrassments during his tenure at Labor.
His much-ballyhooed attack on sweatshops, capped with a promise in May, 1981, to send corrective legislation to Congress, so far has not resulted in a bill.
Donovan, a conservative House Republican said, is "dragging the bat."