My friend of longest standing has been, let us say, a noted philanderer throughout much of his life. He has been benign for the last five years, however, while pursuing a serious romantic relationship with the current love of his life. Recently he and his girlfriend became engaged.
His love life may strike some people as far removed from the White House transition decisions, but I see similarities.
Other acquaintances phoned to discuss the possible wedding news and its import.
“I’m thrilled,” said one man who, like the rest of us, has over the years enjoyed our friend’s exploits vicariously. “He needs to get married so he can start dating again.”
And that, believe it or not, brought me to an examination of the daunting task President-elect Barack Obama has in choosing his cabinet.
Many among us have high expectations that his election signifies a break from our past and will usher in new ideas and new people to Washington. Alas, Obama’s early considerations echo with names from the past. The reverberations are from Bill Clinton’s era. Already we have Rham Emanuel. Likely appointments also include: Eric Holder -- the Justice Department No. 2 when Clinton was president -- to be Obama’s attorney general; former Senate leader Tom Daschle as his health secretary; and even the former First Lady herself, Sen. Hillary Clinton, as a possible Secretary of State.
Other familiar names are bandied about, including New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Sen. John Kerry.
These appointments would represent politics as usual. We were looking to read that rock star investor Warren Buffett would be spotted leaving Obama’s transition offices after an obligatory interview. Instead these familiar Washington insider names keep cropping up.
The dilemma Obama faces is similar to that of my roving bachelor friend. He has promised -- and more than likely wants -- fresh faces but he also needs the security of continuity.
Obama confronts a system that devours the inexperienced. There is Washington’s vast bureaucracy, the history of our government, congressmen and congresswomen with an almost legacy-grip on their jobs, and special interest groups marauding for help for client’s projects.
This is neither the first time we have been promised change nor the first time we have been disappointed. Our expectations of outsiders entering the Beltway will likely be dashed.
Clinton’s first term comes to mind. And there was Jimmy Carter’s only term.
Washington in the first few months of the Clinton regime was brought almost to a standstill because key appointments and crucial personnel decisions had been delayed until after the inauguration. Urgency was not understood.
Carter in 1977 brought some new men to Washington with him, but the good ole boys from Georgia wandered around the big city acting and looking like hicks. Some actually were. They reveled in their disdain for the men and women who knew government and more importantly understood how to turn campaign rhetoric into actionable goals and results. By the time Carter and his confidantes such as Jody Powell figured it all out it was too late.
There was White House paralysis. Hostages were held in Iran. Inflation and interest rates hovered near double digits. Energy problems and the lack of a national plan to solve them became evident.
And remember Bert Lance?
A banker Carter had known since the mid-1960’s through Georgia politics, Lance brought practical financial experience with him when named director of federal Office of Management and Budget in 1977. He was fiscally conservative and in Georgia had a reputation in state government for reducing payroll and instituting zero-based budgeting.
Less than a year into office Lance was accused of improprieties and unethical conduct from his time as head of the Calhoun First National Bank in Georgia. The national press turned on Carter and his appointee. Years later Lance was found not guilty by jury verdict of any illegal activities surrounding the charges. However that came long after Lance resigned. He spent less than a year in the cabinet.
The Carter administration had a few other examples of bringing in outsiders promising to change the old Washington ways but they failed, too. None of them, Carter included, understood how to succeed in the clubby and intricate bureaucratic maze that is our federal government.
All we can do at this point is to sit and wait and watch for that one, new shining face in the cabinet, that one person who can bring with him or her the practical experience of everyday living, private business and a record of accomplishment. Then our hope will be sustained.
And, if we get such a person in the new government, our naive optimism and expectations will be tempered by the reality that President Obama also needs continuity and people who know the ropes. Where to find the key to the bathroom in the Pentagon, for instance.
These are times for us to face grim realities because the nation’s challenges are many and daunting. Pie in the sky dreams stand a better chance of coming true with dependable old feet on solid ground.