This article originally appears in The American Thinker
Much has been made of the fact that the President’s appointment of Michael Brown to head up the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was a matter of pure politics, a plumb assignment given to a loyal partisan who was a college roommate of Bush confidante and former FEMA head Joseph Allbaugh.
This may be true. And it also may be true that although Brown proved himself competent in other disasters, his performance in the aftermath of Katrina has been almost universally condemned both by partisan Democrats and even many Republicans. The criticism is usually attributed to the fact that Brown’s appointment was based not on his competence to do the job but rather his political connections.
The one does not necessarily preclude the other. There are numerous examples in history of Presidents appointing cabinet officials for political reasons who turned out to be outstanding, even brilliant public servants.
Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet was made up almost entirely of men who had opposed him for the Republican Presidential nomination. Salmon P. Chase was a former senator and governor who Lincoln named Secretary of the Treasury and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. A lawyer with no experience in finance whatsoever, Chase proved himself to be an able and innovative Treasury Secretary. He is generally credited with keeping the government on sound fiscal footing while raising the cash necessary to pay for the Civil War.
Another political appointee of Lincoln’s was Secretary of State William H. Seward whose policies helped to keep England and France on the sidelines during the war. Intervention by either of those two European superpowers could have spelled doom for the union. Edwin Stanton, who took over at the War Department for Simon Cameron, a corrupt political appointee, was an outstanding administrator and oversaw the rapid expansion of the armed forces.
Lincoln’s most unusual and most successful political appointee may have been newspaper publisher Gideon Welles who served as Secretary of the Navy. It was Wells who commissioned the ironclad Monitor whose famous battle with the CSS Virginia changed naval warfare forever. Wells also came up with the plans for a naval blockade of the South that eventually contributed mightily to ending the war.
None of these men were especially suited for the tasks assigned them. And yet, each performed magnificently in very trying times. Lincoln, like all Presidents, chose his subordinates based on a wide variety of factors, not the least of which was loyalty. And in Lincoln’s case, the political factor of geographic balance was vital to maintaining the support of a majority of northern citizens.
But by far the most spectacularly successful political appointee of all time came about as a result of one the first acts of the Second Continental Congress of 1775; the naming of a Commander in Chief of the citizen army encamped outside Boston.
Up to 12,000 militia had gathered to lay siege to the city following the April battles of Lexington and Concord. The Congress wanted to claim the army as its own but to do that involved some very delicate political maneuvering. The army was made up almost entirely of Massachusetts militia with a smattering of units from other New England states. Clearly, a way must be found to nationalize the army so that it at least appeared to represent all 13 colonies.
Enter a young lawyer from Massachusetts named John Adams who had a burning desire to see America independent of Great Britain. Adams originally had plans of his own to lead the army but realized what was needed most was the naming of a commander who would nationalize the effort.
There were candidates galore for the job. President of the Congress John Hancock had the advantage of being one of the wealthiest men in America but shared the same disadvantage as Adams; he hailed from Massachusetts. Israel Putnam, the pugnacious Major General currently in charge of the motley collection of militia and volunteers occupying the heights outside of Boston, was from Connecticut and had fought at Bunker Hill. But he was considered too provincial and perhaps too old by some to lead the army. Other General officers serving in the “New England Army” as it was called either weren’t well known or didn’t have the experience to lead such a large body of men.
Besides, “the business needs a Virginian” as John Adams was said to have remarked. Adams recognized that if the Congress were to name a Commander from the south, it would unite the colonies behind the army and make it easier for the states to support its functions. Since Congress itself had no money, the army would be entirely dependent on contributions from the states for its sustenance – a fact of life that the Continental army dealt with until the end of the war.
If the “business” did indeed require someone from the largest and oldest colony, Virginia obliged by supplying three qualified candidates for the job as Commander in Chief. Two of the candidates had extensive if not distinguished service in the regular British army. Charles Lee had joined the army at age 12 and steadily moved up the ranks. He served as an officer under General Braddock during the Fort Duquense expedition, a military adventure that saw his other rivals for command – George Washington and Horatio Gates – also present at that famous but ill-fated battle. After marrying the daughter of a Mohawk chief, Lee went back to England where he served in Portugal and Poland. Considered a brilliant tactician, he was nevertheless thought to be arrogant and eccentric – two qualities that came to the fore later in his career.
Horatio Gates was another officer in the regular British army whose experience outshone even that of Lee. In addition to service in the colonies during the 7 Years War, he also participated in the capture of Martinique, one of the more spectacular British victories of the war. He rose to the rank of Major but due to his lowly social status was prevented from further advancement. He retired in 1769 and moved to Virginia.
Almost to the end of the Revolutionary War, Gates had admirers both in and out of Congress who believed that he was the best man to lead the American armies to victory. The reason for this is largely hidden from us as Gates’ military abilities were more than once found wanting. However, in 1775 he looked like a pretty good bet except for one thing; many in Congress simply didn’t trust the fact that he had recently immigrated from England.
John Adams had his own candidate from the beginning; a Virginia planter and former Commander of the Virginia militia named George Washington. Washington had the advantage of being well known throughout the colonies for his service during the 7 Years War, having in effect started the conflict with France by attacking a small party of French regulars near today’s Pittsburgh. He also distinguished himself in retreat during the Fort Duquense fiasco for which he became something of a hero . Otherwise, Washington’s military experience was extremely limited. In fact, he resigned his commission in the militia in 1759 because the British refused to make him an officer in the regular army.
But Adams had bigger fish to fry than simply naming a commanding general. Washington had served in the Virginia House of Burgess and was as well known a political figure in the south as he was a military commander. It was part of Adams intent to cement the planter class in Virginia and the rest of the south to the cause. For that reason as well as the necessity to name a commander based on geographic balance, Adams successfully nominated and shepherded Washington’s election to the position of Commanding General of the Continental Army.
There’s no doubt on paper that Washington was the least qualified of the three Virginians to lead the Continental army. While obviously a capable man, there was really nothing in his background to suggest greatness as a military commander or leader of men. As it turns out, Washington began his career as Commanding General with the disastrous New York campaign during which the Continental Army was almost destroyed. But Washington eventually developed a strategic sense that far outstripped both his rivals for command and his enemies. It was George Washington who saw early on that if he could keep his little army from being destroyed, the Revolution would go on. Following his brilliant victories at Trenton and Princeton, Washington stuck to that strategy until the end of the war. It is doubtful that the European trained Gates or Lee would have been any where near as successful.
Appointing people to positions based mostly on politics – even to positions of enormous importance – has been done by every President in history. Harry Truman named Jame Byrnes, a long time politician with zero experience in foreign affairs, as Secretary of State in 1945. In his less than two years in that position, Byrnes proved himself to be pretty much of a non-entity, eventually being eased out by Truman in 1947.
George Bush miscalculated when he named Michael Brown to the position of FEMA Director. But that doesn’t mean he appointed Brown thinking he wouldn’t be capable of doing an outstanding job. There are usually good reasons for appointing some one to fill an important position in the federal government. Sometimes, those reasons are political. Call it “cronyism,” the fact is that President’s want people they can trust implicitly in key positions. It’s just at times, the individual named just doesn’t seem up to the challenges posed by the office. In that case, good Presidents cut their losses and get rid of the appointee as soon as that becomes evident as Bush has now done.
And while it may not satisfy his critics, Bush has a tremendous ability to expertly judge talent. Don’t be surprised if his recently named FEMA Director R. David Paulison proves himself more than capable of handling the job.
Despite initial reports that Michael Brown was a college roomate of former FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh, they are apparently untrue. Allbaugh and Brown were friends in college but not not roomates.
I apologize for the error.