Dubya's Cozy Cabinet Formula

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George W. Bush congratulates Rod Paige, his nominee for secretary of education

As the president-elect heads to the Crawford ranch for the weekend, his nascent cabinet is now three-quarters full. And the latest four picks are a very representative sample of the process so far: One Republican star, two people you've never heard of, one who's been pre-leaked for weeks, and one who's already held the job.

The non-surprise is Tommy Thompson for secretary of Health and Human Services. A staunch pro-lifer and welfare-reform pioneer, Thompson is a conservative star and one of the generation of Republican "pragmatist" governors that made it possible for Bush to run for president in the first place.

The responsibilities at HHS are immense, and cover much of the Bush agenda. Medicare. Medicaid. Social Security. Welfare. And abortion policy. Thompson has a reputation as a workhorse, a details man and a good aisle-crosser, and after turning up his nose at Washington during the first Bush administration — calling it "Disneyland East" — he says he's ready to move in and get to work on health-care reform, welfare reform and bio-technology. "I am absolutely passionate about these issues," Thompson said Friday by way of introduction.

And in true Bush style, he's not eager to press the hot-buttons — Thompson has avoided beating the drum on divisive issues during four terms in Wisconsin and would appear to have no inclination to start doing so in Washington. He's widely respected and a cinch for confirmation.

Another African-American

For education, Bush's self-proclaimed first love, it's a Texan. Rod Paige is superintendent of schools in Houston and presumably one of the inspirations for Bush's own education dreams. Bush dusted off an old slogan for Paige on Friday, calling him a "reformer with results," and added that Paige has shown in Houston that "urban schools can be excellent schools." Oh, and he's black, which makes three in so far in the inner circle.

For Interior secretary, essentially the nation's park steward and the person who'll have a lot to say about where the derricks go, it's Gale Norton, who served as Colorado's attorney general for eight years and is an Interior and Agriculture vet from earlier GOP administrations. That's she's from one of those red states out in the untamed west is no surprise; that she's not Slade Gorton, the departing senator from Microsoftland who has made more enemies among American Indians than Bruce Babbit ever dreamed of, should reduce the controversy factor considerably. Very Bush, who said she'll help him "find ways to develop our nation's resources in a balanced and environmentally friendly way." Translation: Arctic drilling is on the way.

Anthony J. Principi, Bush's pick for secretary of veterans affairs, isn't quite doing it all over again, but he was a deputy in the same department under Bush's father. Decorated Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, counsel to the Senate Veteran's Affairs Committee, California communications businessman, Principi is in charge of keeping 23 million veterans feeling like their country appreciates them.

The big picture? More Republican retreads and old pros, and plenty of low profiles. Of course, most Cabinet members slip into obscurity by the time the new term gets underway, but Bush seems determined to avoid any controversies he can in the meantime. Next week: labor secretary, energy secretary, transportation secretary, UN representative, and most of the rest of the White House staff.

And the search for a Democrat continues.