Wanted: A public servant who will pledge to keep America safe in a world that is fundamentally, relentlessly, hide-under-your-bed dangerous. Must have cool temperament, intestinal fortitude. Will receive much criticism, scant praise.
Janet Napolitano will step down in September from her post as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which might be considered the worst job in politics by anyone with a nervous system and a healthy sense of cowardice. If it’s not the worst, then it’s the most perilous and unsung.
It’s “one of the toughest and most thankless jobs in Washington,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement about Napolitano’s resignation.
“Everybody knows when you’ve messed up, but nobody knows when you’ve done a great job,” says Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report. “It seems all you can do is lose. . . . When you think about most of the Cabinet positions, they’re relatively thankless, [but] it seems at this job you’re almost guaranteed to be a lightning rod.”
DHS secretary is the youngest Cabinet-level job — formally established by Congress in late 2002 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and yet it’s also one of the most expansive and fraught. The secretary’s portfolio includes terrorism, natural disasters, cybersecurity and widespread medical crises.
So, worst job, right?
“I’ve said it!” Tom Ridge bellows on the phone.
Congress, Ridge says. And Congress’s involvement in the dozens of agencies within the department.
“The relationships that the secretary has with multiple committees and jurisdictions on the Hill complicates his or her life,” says Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who served as the first DHS secretary, from 2003 to 2005. Politicians “get excited when there’s a natural disaster but then, ah, you’ve got to worry about immigration and, oh my goodness, there’s an issue with the Secret Service . . . ”
Ridge’s successor, Michael Chertoff, has heard the “worst job” comments before and thinks they’re “somewhat exaggerated.” But DHS secretary is certainly one of the most challenging in politics, he says, because of the broad mission mentioned by Ridge. As secretary, Chertoff kept calm and clear-headed by exercising and going for runs.
“If you’re temperamentally an anxious person, or a person who has difficulty making decisions, this is not the job for you,” Chertoff says. Same goes “if you’re somebody who requires a lot of positive reinforcement . . . because most of the triumphs are unheralded.”
Case in point: The public might best remember Napolitano for saying “the system worked” after a Nigerian man failed to detonate explosives on a trans-Atlantic flight on Christmas Day 2009 or for telling Congress that one of the Boston Marathon bombers was on — and then off — the department’s radar in 2012.
If DHS secretary isn’t the worst job in politics, then what is?
Chertoff suggests the director of the Office of Management and Budget, because it involves tortured haggling over national priorities in the margins of government. Ridge thinks the Coast Guard is both unappreciated and widely heroic (“They’re chasing down drug runners in the Gulf of Mexico and pulling fishermen out of 20-foot seas up in Alaska!”). Obamacare has made the otherwise anodyne position of Health and Human Services secretary into a heavy and scrutinized affair, notes Walter of the Cook Political Report.
A Nexis database search for references to the “worst job in Washington” and “worst job in politics” turns up many top positions in the capital, including: the vice president, the president’s chief of staff, speaker of the House and majority leader during this current Congress, and, for several years in the 1990s, the job held by lawyer Lanny J. Davis, who was special counsel to Bill Clinton during his various scandals.
“I had to absorb the poison and the nasty stories and questions about anything controversial,” says Davis, now an attorney specializing in crisis management, who remembers constantly running between the Executive Office Building and the Oval Office to throw himself on the latest bombshell. “As I was walking down the hall [of the West Wing], I would see doors closing. I was like a walking infection. People did not want me to walk past their offices with the doors open.”
In Davis’s opinion, whoever is nominated and confirmed to be the next DHS secretary will not have the worst job in Washington. That distinction goes to . . .
“Jay Carney,” says Davis, referencing the White House press secretary who has seemed flummoxed by episodes like the IRS scandal and the attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. “Clearly, you can watch the man suffering.”