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Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2001 / 10 Teves, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Faces in a cabinet -- UNLESS HE SELF-DESTRUCTS, every president of the United States is supposed to begin his administration with a honeymoon, but we can't remember a recent president whose Cabinet appointments have met with such nigh-universal approbation.

Maybe it's just that the country is weary of partisanship after the 36-day, second presidential election this year, and eager for a fresh start. But the quality and balance of George W. Bush's top picks may have something to do with the positive reception they've been getting from the country.

When the appointments are announced, commentators use words like strength, competence, experience and, to quote a headline on the front page of The New York Times last Sunday, "power-seasoned executives.''

The headliners in foreign affairs, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, deserve the praise they've received and the hope they've stirred. Both are well-known national figures by now, especially Gen. Powell, and both have a reputation for steadiness, focus and clear vision.

Each has been able to focus on clear goals and achieve them; they're not the sort to dissipate their energies (and the country's) on a wide assortment of vague gestures. That's a good omen for the country's foreign policy, which very much needs focus.

This past week brought more good news: Donald Rumsfeld, who held the job under Gerald Ford, is back as secretary of defense. He did good work then, and he's had a couple of decades to grow old and wiser, and to think about the new military challenges facing the country, which are considerable.

Rumsfeld mentioned a few of those challenges on being nominated: "information warfare, missile defense, terrorism, defense of our space assets, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.'' Yes, things have changed some since the 1970s. To quote Rumsfeld, "We are in a new national security environment.''

Just as impressive is whom the president-elect did not appoint secretary of defense: Dan Coats, a former senator from Indiana whose name was being floated for the job. A man with a fine risumi, as a senator he was known less for statesmanship than stridency.

Some other names in the new Cabinet inspire hope and confidence, too:

Tommy Thompson, the 14-year governor of Wisconsin, is no cultural sophisticate, but that's only one of the advantages he will bring to his new job as secretary of health and human services.

Under his leadership, Wisconsin became a national model for both welfare-to-work programs and getting health care to poor children -- and their families. He's a tough-minded administrator with a deep concern for those who need concern the most. And he's not afraid of new ideas. Indeed, in his state, some of the country's better ideas have become official policy.

Tommy Thompson will succeed the increasingly impressive Donna Shalala. Even if her political correctness was a constant irritant and distraction, she proved a far-sighted member of the Cabinet, especially in the latter part of her term, and especially when it came to expanding health programs. She was also the only member of the Cabinet to challenge Bill Clinton at a Cabinet meeting for sending her and so many others like her out to lie for him, which increased our respect for the lady.

For attorney general, the president-elect has chosen an unmistakably conservative Missourian who, like the governor of Wisconsin, has a deep commitment to life. His politics, style and personality may irritate those of the opposite bent. But not even his critics doubt John Ashcroft's integrity or respect for the law.

What a refreshing change it will be to watch congressional hearings that focus on a politician's political views and statements, rather than his minimal concern for the law -- on his voting record rather than whether he has testified falsely under oath and tried to obstruct the judicial process.

When it comes to education, where so much needs to be done in this country, George W. Bush has chosen the can-do superintendent of Houston's schools, Rod Paige. Over the past decade, Superintendent Paige has taken on Houston's teachers' unions and other vested interests in order to give every child in his district a better chance in life.

And it's worked. A believer in firm discipline, this school superintendent saw crime in Houston's schools drop dramatically in recent years (20 percent) while test scores increased just as dramatically. More than four-fifths of Houston's public school students were passing the state's writing exam by 1998, which was a gain of 15 percent in five years. Math scores showed equally impressive increases.

Let it be noted that Houston's is the largest school district in Texas and that 90 percent of its students are black, Hispanic or belong to other ethnic minorities. Two-thirds qualify for the free-lunch program, and fully a quarter cannot speak English fluently.

This is an educator who does not offer the usual excuses, or accept them. To quote Rod Paige, "Critics try to discredit the idea that children -- especially in inner-city and low-income areas -- should be tested or set lofty goals. I have advice for the whiners and complainers. Give it up and get with it.''

Rod Paige has shown it can be done. And he's not about to accept what George W. Bush has called, quite accurately, "the soft bigotry of low expectations.''

Case in point: In the midst of a school millage election here in Little Rock, Ark., the local school district defended its educational performance by rolling out a racial breakdown of the students' test scores and compared its black kids' performance not to that of kids throughout the state, but to that of black kids throughout the state.

The school district seemed oblivious to the separate but unequal standard it was promoting; it seemed to be saying it was offering a good enough education for black folks. It'll be good to have a secretary of education who can see through these games, which should have gone out with Jim Crow.

Nor is this new secretary of education afraid of school vouchers. He understands that vouchers not only allow kids trapped in bad schools to get out, but help the public schools, too -- by giving schools the strongest possible incentive to improve: competition. What a refreshing change Rod Paige could prove.

And the president-elect gave his Cabinet a bipartisan touch when he chose to keep a holdover from the Clinton administration -- Norman Mineta, secretary of commerce and former Democratic congressman from California -- as secretary of transportation.

In a number of these encouraging developments, one senses the fine and experienced hand of Dick Cheney. That George W. Bush should have chosen him as a running mate continues to assure. It would be hard to name a presidential candidate in recent times who chose as his No. 2 a candidate who was his senior and maybe his superior in so many ways -- not just in experience but competence and judgment. Which speaks well of the second Bush in the American presidential line and of his confidence and self-respect. Bush the Younger clearly has no need to be surrounded by inferiors.

When one remembers whom his father chose as his vice-presidential candidate (Dan Quayle), George W.'s choice of Dick Cheney becomes all the more impressive. His choices for the Cabinet also inspire hope; may hope blossom into achievement.

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