The Benetton-Ad Presidency

  • A week after George W. Bush was re-elected president, he chose Alberto Gonzales, a Mexican American, to be the next Attorney General. A week later, he selected Condoleezza Rice, an African-American woman, to be Secretary of State and Margaret Spellings, a white woman, to be the next Secretary of Education. Then he selected Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban American, as Secretary of Commerce. It took Bush a month before he named a standard-issue white male, Governor Mike Johanns of

    Nebraska, as Agriculture Secretary. Since then, Bush has announced that two Asian Americans, Norman Mineta at Transportation and Elaine Chao at Labor, will remain at their posts. The President is not done naming yet--there are more Cabinet positions and at least one Supreme Court nomination to come--but no one will be surprised if Bush selects people who are neither white nor male.

    The President has said privately he doubts that he will ever get credit for this eruption of American diversity. But admirably, he has never really asked for credit. He hasn't gone around trumpeting the fact that during his first term, the Secretary of State and the National Security Adviser were the first African Americans to hold those positions. Or that there were four women in his Cabinet. Or that Gonzales would be the first Hispanic Attorney General. "He doesn't think that way," says Karl Rove. "He thinks in terms of personal stories. When we learned [that Commerce Secretary] Don Evans wanted to leave, the President mentioned Gutierrez--not because the guy is Hispanic but because the President loves the story: a guy who starts at the bottom at Kellogg's [as a truck driver delivering Frosted Flakes in Mexico] and rises all the way to CEO of the company."

    Of course, as the Bernard Kerik fiasco has demonstrated, a dramatic up-by-the-bootstraps story shouldn't be the only qualification for a presidential appointment. But in this honeymoon season, give credit where credit is due: George W. Bush has not only appointed the two most diverse Cabinets in U.S. history, he has also raised the possibility that the Republican Party--long a pale-male refuge--could become a more attractive option for traditionally Democratic constituencies like women and the rapidly growing nonwhite electorate. "These appointments mean a lot in the Latino community," says Congressman Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "The joke has been that we're the afterthought. We get HUD. Clinton broadened that a little by appointing Federico Peña as Secretary of Transportation. But a Hispanic Attorney General--that means something. And even Commerce Secretary--that's a job that usually goes to a white businessman. These aren't 'tokens.' This is real."

    In a way, President Bush is the beneficiary of 40 years of Democratic policy--not just affirmative action, which helped create a broader, deeper pool of successful nonwhite college graduates, but also the Democratic Party's historic support for civil rights legislation, the feminist revolution and the easing of strict immigration policies in the 1960s, policies long opposed by many Republicans. But the Bush Cabinets have also been very much a reflection of who George W. Bush is and always has been.

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