The Magazine

Who's in Charge

Sep 10, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 48 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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WE WILL ADJUDICATE who’s at fault in a moment. We will begin, instead, simply by noting that today, nearly eight months after Inauguration Day, it remains unclear whether the "Bush administration" actually warrants that designation. The president’s Social Security Administration has no commissioner. His Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health have no directors. And his cabinet departments are vacant at the top in dozens of offices that are responsible for much of the daily work of our government. Throughout the executive branch, fewer than half the senior-most "political" positions have so far been filled.

Those Republicans who’ve bothered to note the problem blame Democrats for the glacial pace of presidential appointments. In several particulars, the complaint is just. Two cabinet-level posts still languish empty, despite the fact that President Bush months ago formally nominated an excellent man to serve in each of them. Neither has been granted a confirmation hearing by Senate Democrats.

United Nations ambassador-designate John D. Negroponte is matchlessly qualified for the job. Over the course of a 37-year foreign service career, he ran three overseas embassies and an entire State Department bureau, and did two tours of duty on the National Security Council. But he also, during the 1980s, supported the Nicaraguan "contra" insurgents then fighting to topple their country’s Marxist regime. So Negroponte has been made to wait almost six months for a confirmation hearing by Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts, both of whom furiously opposed the contra war.

Loath to acknowledge that they have decapitated America’s U.N. delegation out of ancient pique over a Reagan foreign policy, Dodd and Kerry would have us believe, instead, that the delay involves allegations that Negroponte covered up local human rights abuses while he was ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. Except that no one has produced a fly-speck of credible evidence for those allegations.

Not even a whisper of impropriety has been advanced against John P. Walters, President Bush’s similarly outstanding choice to lead the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Here, the should-be cabinet officer’s nomination is being resisted, more or less explicitly, on ideological grounds alone. We say "more or less explicitly" because the discomfort some Senate Democrats appear to have with Walters takes a peculiar, ironic twist.

As this page has previously reported ("John Walters and His Critics," May 21, 2001), a vocal handful of marijuana enthusiasts and other proponents of the right to self-stupefaction do not like the drug czar-designate. They do not like him because he has not endorsed their call to legalize possession of recreational psychoactive chemicals. So they have mischaracterized existing laws and Walters’s record in order to tar him as a lock-’em-up zealot hostile to medical services for drug addicts. And they have persuaded certain people who ought to know better—the editors of the New York Times, for example—to adopt and amplify this smear.

No doubt your average Senate Democrat prefers to imagine himself the Times editorial page made flesh, and no doubt, therefore, your average Senate Democrat imagines that he’s supposed to oppose John Walters. Trouble is, your average Senate Democrat has been supplied impossible grounds on which to do so: The "draconian" laws and "meager" drug-treatment budgets Walters gets blamed for are laws and budgets they themselves have enacted and reenacted year after year. Rather than make asses of themselves by rejecting a nominee because he agrees with them too much, Senate Democrats have chosen to . . . do nothing about Walters—and not explain why.

THEN THERE’S THE CASE of Eugene Scalia, like Walters a friend or former colleague of several WEEKLY STANDARD editors, and the president’s pick to be the Labor Department’s chief lawyer. Scalia has his famous father’s last name, which probably persuades prejudiced partisans that he’s just another doctrinaire policy warrior. Which is unfair to the father and even less fair to the son. For more than a decade, Gene Scalia has made a quiet career for himself as a perfectly mainstream labor lawyer, representing defendant employers. He is universally liked and admired by attorneys who have litigated against him. Consequently, an impressive number of those attorneys have endorsed his nomination: William Robinson, current chair of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, for one, and Ted St. Antoine, a former senior AFL-CIO attorney and dean of the University of Michigan Law School, for another.