Secretary Hillary: Serious Doubts Are Warranted

Since Hillary conceded defeat in the primaries, her reputation as a serious maven on everything has been established as proved-to-the-hilt fact. Somehow we forgot that there was little evidence that Hillary was involved in any serious decisions during her husband’s administration and that the things she did do were disasters, like her health care plan, the “travel office” fiasco, the Rose Law Firm billing records and more. Despite her Joe Biden-like invention of coming under fire while landing somewhere in the Balkans and her lack of real foreign policy experience, everybody thinks she’s a great choice to be Barry’s Secretary of State.

I couldn’t think of an instance where an elected politician was appointed Secretary of State, but Justin Shubow, writing in Commentary’s blog, notes that there were a couple of such appointments and one of them didn’t work out very well:

…Of the 18 (non-acting) Secretaries of State who have held office since the end of World War II, only two were chosen from the ranks of elected politicians: James F. Byrnes and Edmund Muskie. The performance of one of the two offers a cautionary tale.

To take the less relevant of the two first, Muskie served in Maine’s House of Representatives before being elected the state’s Governor in 1954. He would go on to serve as a U.S. Senator for over 40 years, and was a serious Presidential candidate in 1972. Muskie replaced Cyrus Vance as Secretary of State only after Vance resigned out of disgust with Carter’s bungled mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran. Muskie served in the position for only the last seven months of the administration. After leaving the State Department, Muskie acted as an elder statesman but never ran for office again.

The case of Byrnes, however, is far more suggestive of what we might expect from a Secretary Hillary. Byrnes had already been a member of the House of Representatives, a Senator, and even a Supreme Court Justice before FDR made him, in 1943, head of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, a superagency whose role was to “initiate policies, plan programs, and coordinate all federal agencies in the production, procurement, and distribution of all war materials – military and civilian.”

Reminiscent of Hillary’s stint as First Lady, his political influence and maneuvering extended so far outside of his official duties that members of Congress started calling him “assistant President.” And in another resonant similarity, he later seriously contended with, but lost to, Truman in the competition to become the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1944. Indeed, it was President Truman, taking office after FDR’s death, who appointed Byrnes as Secretary of State in June 1945. On its face, the choice made good sense insofar as Byrnes had been Truman’s main adviser on foreign policy. However, Truman would later admit that he made the appointment partly out of guilt over the vice presidential episode.

Byrnes’s time as chief diplomat turned out to be a troubled one. Feeling resentment toward Truman for having defeated him politically, Byrnes set foreign policy without informing the President in advance. (Complaining that he was learning of American policy from newspapers, Truman privately called Byrnes a “conniver.”) Byrnes was also seen as being too willing to compromise with the Soviets, and he made some major diplomatic blunders when it came to negotiating the status of Eastern European countries after the war. Ultimately, the personal and political tension between Truman and him became too great, and Byrnes resigned and left office in 1947. But any such internal difficulties didn’t hurt his subsequent political career. He would go on to be elected governor of South Carolina at the advanced age of 72.

Whatever Byrnes’s missteps as Secretary of State, he at least came to the job with a hefty amount of relevant experience. After all, he effectively ran the domestic war effort. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine anyone relying on Hillary for her foreign policy expertise.

In any case, whether or not Hillary hopes to have a political career like that of Byrnes’s (she is currently 61 years old), it is worth reflecting on whether any elected politician is likely to make a good Secretary of State, especially when the other names being floated for the position are Governor Bill Richardson and Senators John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and Sam Nunn. True statesmanship, it should go without saying, requires political disinterestedness. As a Senator wisely put it many years ago:

“A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”

It is of course possible that a politician might be willing permanently to leave politics behind for unselfish public service, but when a politician has shown him- or herself to be ruthlessly partisan and ambitious, and to have known little except how to climb the greasy pole, serious doubts are warranted.

And now Washington Post media critic Howie Kurtz wonders about the media’s Barry “boosterism” and concludes:

…There is always a level of excitement when a new president is coming to town — new aides to profile, new policies to dissect, new family members to follow. But can anyone imagine this kind of media frenzy if John McCain had managed to win?

Obama’s days of walking on water won’t last indefinitely. His chroniclers will need a new story line. And sometime after Jan. 20, they will wade back into reality.

But why should they? Sure it’ll be difficult for bitchy lefty opinionists like Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd to continue to make fun of Bush and Sarah Palin or even the Republicans in Congress since none of them will have any real say in what decisions are made. With a filibuster-proof Senate, the Democrats will completely run the show and don’t have to “reach across the aisle,” although they will try to get Republicans to sign on for cover.

The media’s choice is either to bury Barry or praise him. Which do you think they’ll choose?

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