Good-government folks always get upset when Cabinet and other top government officials travel on the public dime for what appear to be purely campaign events. No matter that this is a time-honored, bipartisan abuse of the taxpayer.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have said they are not going to hit the campaign trail, a traditional posture for heads of those agencies. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft does not appear to be out much, though he stopped last month in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, talking grants and such.
Other officials have some serious money to leave behind. For example, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman was near Columbus on Monday, dropping $207.3 million to improve water quality for Ohio's capital.
At the end of July, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao spoke to Hispanics in Orlando, announced grants to the National Urban League in Detroit and then went back to Jacksonville, Fla. Since then, Chao has given only eight speeches out of town, including two in Ohio, one in Michigan and one in New Mexico.
The star of the Cabinet, in terms of spreading the good word on President Bush's economic policies, has been Treasury Secretary John W. "Battleground" Snow.
Since Aug. 6, Snow has given 21 speeches or chats outside the Beltway. Seven of them have been in Ohio -- sparking rumors, hotly denied, that he has rented an apartment in downtown Massillon for the duration.
In fact, 19 of his 21 speeches or chats outside Washington have been in battleground states (the other two were in New York City). In addition to the seven in the Buckeye State, he has done six speeches or chats in Pennsylvania -- including two yesterday in the Lancaster area. There've been two in Missouri and one each in Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire and Iowa.
Asked about this, Snow told reporters recently in Toledo that his many trips to Ohio had nothing to do with politics. "I go where I am invited," he said. "I have been delighted to be invited all around Ohio."
Well, it's good to go where people want you. On the other hand, it must be disconcerting to learn that people in 42 states -- including California, Texas and Illinois -- couldn't care less what you think about the economy.
Sometimes things don't go so well, such as when Snow spoke in Ohio about a "myth" that fewer people are employed in the U.S. today than four years ago. The Kerry folks jumped all over that one. Snow backed away.
Of course, in 2000, the Bush campaign jumped on Snow predecessor Lawrence H. Summers and former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright for saying something allegedly political.
Snow's folks at Treasury say he hits the road to see firsthand how things are going, to check the pulse of business leaders, to learn what their views are. He obviously cares most deeply about business leaders in places such as Mansfield, Lima and Toledo, all in Ohio, and Pennsylvania's Mechanicsburg and Lancaster. He listens carefully. He also gives well-covered talks.
Some of the suspicions about taxpayer-subsidized politicking may have arisen from what he says on these visits. For example, at one stop in Lancaster yesterday, Snow said: "It's good to be here with Congressman Joe Pitts, who is doing a terrific job representing the people of this district in Congress. He's been a partner in passing tax relief, and I appreciate his work, and I know the president does, too."
In remarks prepared for another stop there, he said: "As a result of the president's economic leadership, we have overcome a recession and seen 13 straight months of job creation . . . and the president's tax reform policies have ensured" lower income-tax bills for more than 4.6 million Pennsylvanians.
Now, to the untrained ear, that might look, walk, quack and, in every way, be identical to Bush campaign talking points. But experts know this is simply not the case. So how is the layman to distinguish between political trips and nonpolitical ones?
Here's the key: If the campaign determines a speech is political, it will gladly pay. If the campaign determines it's more appropriate to bill the taxpayers, then it will. It's really quite simple. Snow's not campaigning, just accepting invitations to praise Bush.
Snow is not going to be in Ohio or Pennsylvania the rest of the week. It's not that he doesn't still care very deeply about them. But he just got an urgent invitation from business leaders to go to Tampa today and Orlando tomorrow.
A Diplomatic Turn for Tenet
Former CIA chief George J. Tenet is heading to Georgetown University, his alma mater, for a three-year term as a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. This in addition to his book contract and public speaking. . . . Speaking of the agency, highly regarded spokesman Mark Mansfield is on extended leave for health reasons. The agency veteran will be replaced by his deputy, Paul Gimigliano, who will serve as acting director of public affairs.
Credit Where Credit's Due
Transportation Department officials, noting an item in Monday's column, say Vice President Cheney shouldn't thank them for the spruced-up airport near his favorite hunting lodge in South Dakota. State officials were the ones who approved the money, and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) thought it was great.