It was the crowning moment in Richard Milhous Nixon’s long career of political ups-and-downs. For the fifth time, Nixon had been a candidate on the national ticket (twice as Vice President, three times as President). In 1952 and 1956, the focus was on the top of the ticket, Nixon’s running mate, Dwight Eisenhower. In 1960, Nixon narrowly lost to — and some would say was the victim of theft from — John F. Kennedy. In 1968, Nixon finally won election to the Presidency, but he did so with some bitterness: the country was in shambles and the two people he wanted to oppose more than anyone else in the election — Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy — had respectively quit and been murdered during the turbulent campaign. Not only that, but in victory, Nixon had garnered only 43.4% of the vote — a full 6 percentage points less than he had earned in his 1960 loss to JFK.
On November 7, 1972, however, Nixon’s “Silent Majority” spoke loud and clear — and truly gave him both a majority victory and a strong mandate for his second term in the White House. Nixon trounced Democratic Senator George S. McGovern on election night. His popular vote victory was 61%-38% and Nixon’s margin in the Electoral College was even larger, 520-17. Nixon won every single state in the country except for Massachusetts. Nixon even won McGovern’s home state of South Dakota.
As the election returns rolled in and Nixon’s family, supporters, and staff celebrated, the man who had received the votes of 47,169,841 of his fellow Americans that day to be their President noted that he felt “a curious feeling, perhaps a foreboding, that muted my enjoyment of this triumphal moment.” In his memoirs, Richard Nixon elaborated further, “I am at a loss to explain the melancholy that settled over me on that victorious night…To some extent the marring effects of Watergate may have played a part, to some extent our failure to win Congress, and to a greater extent the fact that we had not yet been able to end the war in Vietnam. Or perhaps it was because this would be my last campaign. Whatever the reasons, I allowed myself only a few minutes to reflect on the past. I was confident that a new era was about to begin, and I was eager to begin it.”
The new era began the next morning. At 12:00 PM on November 8, 1972, President Nixon gathered his Cabinet in the White House. Nixon seemed tired and was suffering from a painful toothache. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger noted that the President seemed “grim and remote”. Nixon’s loyal Chief of Staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman was at his side as the President nonchalantly thanked his Cabinet and then described his recent readings about Benjamin Disraeli and how Disraeli described a need to refresh the British government and rid it of the “exhausted volcanoes” in William Gladstone’s Cabinet. Nixon’s Cabinet was perplexed and curious as to where the President was headed. He had just won a landslide victory in the Presidential election, but he spoke as if he had lost everything.
After a few more minutes of talking about his plans for a second term that wasn’t “lethargic” such as those of some of his predecessors, Nixon simply stood up and walked out of the Cabinet Room, headed across the South Lawn, boarded Marine One and flew to his Camp David retreat. When the President stands, everyone stands but as soon as he left the room, the Cabinet sat down and looked at Bob Haldeman, who took over the meeting. Haldeman handed pieces of paper out to the Cabinet and said, “You’re all a bunch of burned-out volcanoes”. Then he immediately demanded everyone’s resignation. Nixon had won one of the biggest victories in American electoral history, and 24 hours later, he was basically firing everyone who had helped him to do so — earlier in the day, he had done the same thing that he did to the Cabinet to his White House staff.
Henry Kissinger summed it up by saying that, “It was as if victory was not an occasion for reconciliation but an opportunity to settle the scores of a lifetime.” For Richard Nixon, victory was never enough. He needed destruction. Nixon got rid of his exhausted volcanoes, but he was sitting on top of another volcano named Watergate. His abbreviated second term, which had been won the night before, would end less than two years later in his own personal and professional destruction.
I think Senator Kerry is an excellent choice. He has a wealth of experience in foreign relations due to his lengthy service on that committee in the Senate, is well-known around the world, and has built personal relationships with many international leaders that will serve him and the President well once he takes over at State. I think that Susan Rice got a raw deal over the Benghazi attacks and was unfairly made out to be the scapegoat, but I also think Kerry is a much more solid pick for Secretary of State than Rice would have been.
I think Robert Gates is probably the best Secretary of Defense (or Secretary of War) since Henry L. Stimson and probably in the Top 5 in all of American history (a lot of Americans would probably be surprised to realize that many historians, including myself consider Jefferson Davis to be #1). Gates was loyal, dependable, incredibly smart, eminently qualified, and had the respect and confidence of not only the military, but two Presidents from different parties who had almost nothing in common other than Robert Gates as their Secretary of Defense. For President Bush and President Obama, Secretary Gates was the ideal Cabinet member — supportive, yet unafraid to voice objections or an opposing viewpoint, and completely capable of managing his department and getting the most out of his people. I have nothing but respect for Robert Gates.
He was only Secretary of State for two years (1947-1949), but George C. Marshall, in my opinion, was the greatest American diplomat of the past 100 years. Marshall, of course, developed the Marshall Plan, which helped relieve war-torn Europe and won him the 1953 Nobel Peace Prize.
By the way, outside of the State Department, General Marshall probably was one of the most qualified Americans who never served as President of the United States. Marshall was the Army Chief of Staff during World War II and what that means is that he was the guy who basically picked the Generals who won the war. Marshall was a priceless asset to President Roosevelt and President Truman during the war and after the war.
Besides General Marshall, I’d also include Charles Evans Hughes, who served as Secretary of State under President Harding and President Coolidge (and was another guy who probably should have been President himself). Also, Cordell Hull — the longest serving Secretary of State — who served throughout almost three full terms of FDR’s Administration.
Depending on your political affiliation, there are also many who have high opinions of other 20th/21st Century Secretaries of State. Quite frankly, the United States has done historically well — particularly in the last 50 years — with the person that have been put at the helm of the State Department. These names are all people who did some important things that significantly affected American policy and the world as a whole: John Foster Dulles (President Eisenhower), Dean Rusk (President Kennedy and President Johnson), Henry Kissinger (President Nixon and President Ford), George Schulz (President Reagan), James Baker (President Bush 41), and Madeline Albright (President Clinton). Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are tainted by the Iraq War, but Powell is a heavyweight on the world stage and Rice is a remarkable leader. Hillary Clinton is on her way to being a very important Secretary of State and might be the MVP of the Obama Administration so far.
That’s a good question and the answer is that it’s probably a combination of Pierce’s personal popularity with his colleagues and just pure luck. Even if he was the greatest administrator or manager ever (which he wasn’t), President Pierce had an unusual stretch of four years where none of his Cabinet appointees even died in office.
I think he’s a major micromanager (does that make sense?) and he has an amazing Cabinet full of people with executive experience and creativity that he should unleash. I think Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both did a really good job of letting their Cabinets exist as an entity unto themselves. Clinton also was a micromanager, but he knew when to pull back and let his Cabinet do the work.
The Cabinet is a very important weapon that President Obama has not learned how to use properly yet. It is not only a group of effective administrators who can act as advocates and surrogates for his agenda, but the Cabinet is the first line of defense and they can take fire when the President comes under attack. Obama definitely needs to learn how to use the Cabinet effectively and to their fullest extent. I think Obama trusts Hillary enough to let her play her role and Gates is so good at the Pentagon that Obama knows he doesn’t need to worry about the DoD, but people like Sebelius, Chu, Carlson, Locke, Vilsack, and LaHood should be out there on the frontline. I also think he needs to shake things up a bit and dump Janet Napolitano (who I personally like and respect but I feel she’s a political liability) and maybe even Geithner (who is overrated and not dynamic enough) and Eric Holder (just doesn’t seem like an Attorney General to me). Who would he replace them with? I don’t know. I’m not the President; I just pretend that I know what’s best for the President.
I actually do have a legitimate question. Because William Seward is my all-time hero, who do you think is one of the most unsung heroes from the presidential cabinet?
This is actually a great question, so I’m expanding on it and publishing it as a longer post.
Forgive me if I leave some really important, influential Cabinet members out of the discussion, but let’s take a shot at running down some of those who made the biggest impact:
I’m excluding Washington’s Cabinet because they all were massively important in setting precedents and establishing the purpose and power behind their positions and departments.
John Adams appointed John Marshall as Secretary of State and Marshall began his long career as a giant of American History by arguing for neutrality in the war between England and France and backing up American naval rights. Marshall would have eventually been President if he continued serving in the executive or legislative branches, but Adams appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Marshall dominated the American judiciary from 1801 until today. Other than Marshall and Attorney General Charles Lee, almost everyone in Adams’s Cabinet betrayed him in some way and showed allegiance to the Alexander Hamilton wing of the Federalist Party.
Albert Gallatin was tremendously influential as Treasury Secretary under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, reduced the national debt despite the cost of the Louisiana Purchase and the Tripolitan War, and was an important adviser on all issues to Jefferson. During the Madison Administration, Gallatin helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812.
During the early part of the nation’s history, the Secretary of State was a tremendously powerful and influential post and an almost automatic stepping stone to the Presidency. Four of the first six Presidents served as Secretary of State and James Madison (under Jefferson), James Monroe (under Madison), and John Quincy Adams (under Monroe) are among the greatest diplomats to ever head the State Department.
William H. Crawford of Georgia served nine years as Secretary of the Treasury (under Madison and Monroe) and helped calm the nation after the economic depression caused by the Panic of 1819. Crawford was an effective and capable Treasury Secretary but his political ambitions caused tension between himself and the rest of the Cabinet, including President Monroe, during the “Era of Good Feelings”. Towards the end of Monroe’s term, Monroe and Crawford nearly came to blows during a heated confrontation in the White House.
Besides Crawford and John Quincy Adams (Secretary of State), Monroe’s Cabinet also included a great Secretary of War in John C. Calhoun and Richard Rush and William Wirt both served ably as Attorney General.
JQA appointed Henry Clay as Secretary of State — allegedly the result of the “Corrupt Bargain” that made Adams President when the 1824 election was thrown into the House of Representatives due to no Electoral College majority. Richard Rush, Attorney General during Monroe’s Administration, was Treasury Secretary under JQA and very effective.
Andrew Jackson’s last Treasury Secretary, Levi Woodbury, was Jackson’s biggest ally in the President’s war against the Bank of the United States. Woodbury continued as Treasury Secretary under Van Buren and was appointed to the Supreme Court by James Polk in 1845. Another President, Franklin Pierce, studied law under Woodbury as a young man in New Hampshire.
John Tyler succeeded to the Presidency after William Henry Harrison died one month into his term in 1841. Harrison appointed the Cabinet but it was Tyler who had to work with them. As the first Vice President to succeed to the Presidency, Tyler quickly asserted his power as President instead of “acting President”. The Cabinet thought that Tyler should work with the Cabinet and preside as a team. Tyler felt otherwise and, in the process of setting the precedent for Presidential succession, alienated the Cabinet.
When Tyler ignored the Whig Party and vetoed attempts to create a third Bank of the United States, he alienated any supporters he had left in the party or Cabinet. Not only was Tyler expelled from the Whig Party but the entire Cabinet resigned except for Secretary of State Daniel Webster.
James Polk appointed an effective Cabinet, but Polk was such a workaholic that he dominated every aspect of his Administration. Although his Secretary of State was James Buchanan, an able and decorated diplomat as well as a future President, Polk directed and executed his own foreign policy and barely relied on Buchanan for anything more than ceremonial duties or responsibilities that required the Secretary of State’s involvement or signature.
Daniel Webster returned to the State Department in 1850 after President Taylor died and Millard Fillmore succeeded to office. Webster was an outstanding Secretary when it came to organizing the State Department and establishing systems for efficiency throughout the country, but Webster died in office in 1852.
Franklin Pierce was the only President whose entire Cabinet remained intact throughout his whole term. William Marcy — Secretary of War during President Polk — was a hard-working Secretary of State who pushed an ambitious foreign policy that included the Gadsden Purchase and worked to attempt to annex Cuba. Caleb Cushing was a strong Attorney General and Pierce’s Secretary of War was a visionary, organizational genius who modernized the American military, expanded the U.S. Capitol building, scouted routes for the Transcontinental Railroad and would later become President of the Confederate States of America — Jefferson Davis.
Lincoln’s Cabinet features the great “Team of Rivals” as described in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s history of Lincoln’s Administration. Besides Seward (one of the greatest diplomats to ever serve as Secretary of State), Lincoln also had one of the best Secretaries of War in the history of the nation in Edwin Stanton. Taking over the War Department in the midst of the Civil War, Stanton helped guide the nation’s military towards victory by making sure troops got resources that they needed and finding successful commanders to place in positions where they could help the cause. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase had a tense relationship with President Lincoln but he did an admirable job at the impossible task of ensuring financial stability during a civil war. Gideon Welles — Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy — created a ship-building industry that increased the size of the Union Navy, blockaded Confederate ports during the war, and guaranteed Union dominance in naval battles of the Civil War. Welles continued on at the Navy Department throughout the entire Presidencies of Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
New Yorker Hamilton Fish served as Ulysses S. Grant’s second Secretary of State after Grant’s initial appointee, Elihu B. Washburne, resigned 11 days into his term to become Minister to France. Despite the notorious corruption of Grant’s Administration, Fish was an honest, organized administrator who completely overhauled the State Department and promoted people on the basis of merit rather than adhering to the spoils system that had long dominated departments of the federal government. Fish also negotiated a treaty with Great Britain for damages against U.S. warships during the Civil War by Confederate ships constructed in British ports, as well as urging President Grant to stay neutral during Cuba’s violence struggle for independence from Spain.
The Rutherford B. Hayes Administration (1877-1881) featured a real unsung hero as Secretary of the Interior. Missouri’s Carl Schurz was not only an early environmentalist, but a civil service reformer who enacted reforms prior to the tipping point action which resulted in national demands for civil service reform, President Garfield’s 1881 assassination. Schurz targeted the logging industry’s wasteful practices and helped pass a law which required logging companies to pay for resources that they cut down or used on public lands. On top of that, Schurz was one of the few prominent politicians who fought for better treatment of Native Americans, especially during the time that westward expansion and settling was causing violent clashes with Plains Indians.
Most of James Garfield’s Cabinet resigned following his death just six months into his term in 1881. The only person appointed by Garfield who served throughout the term of Garfield’s successor, President Chester Arthur, was Robert Todd Lincoln, the Secretary of War and oldest son of Abraham Lincoln.
Daniel Manning was Secretary of the Treasury in Grover Cleveland’s first term and on the road to becoming one of the great financial administrators in American History but died just two years into his service in 1887. Manning could have been an instrumental voice in American economics, so his death was a blow not only to the Cleveland Administration but to the nation as a whole.
Cleveland’s two terms were non-consecutive, interrupted by four years of Benjamin Harrison in the White House. Harrison’s Administration featured two strong Secretaries of State. James G. Blaine served from 1889-1892, had briefly been Secretary of State under Presidents Garfield and Arthur in 1881, and was the Republican Presidential nominee in 1884 (losing to Cleveland). Blaine forged closer relationships between the United States and other nations of the Western Hemisphere and served as the first chairman of the Pan-American Conference. Blaine was suceeded by a longtime diplomat who had served as minister in several countries around the world, John W. Foster. Foster served less than two years but secretly gave support to a coup against Hawaii’s Queen Liluokalani and pushed through an attempted annexation of Hawaii that President Cleveland quashed as soon as he regained the White House in 1893.
Cleveland’s second term brought back some players from his first term eight years earlier, but the dominant member of his Cabinet was Richard Olney. Originally appointed Attorney General, Olney was the chief force behind the brutal suppression by fedearl troops of the 1894 Pullman railroad strike and the punishment of strikers in the aftermath of the strike. Two years into Cleveland’s term, Olney was transferred to the State Department and as Secretary of State asserted the power of the United States on the international stage with the Olney Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and was a major proponent of an arbitration tribunal to decide a boundary dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela. The actions of the U.S. in the Venezuelan Boundary Dispute helped increase American influence internationally.
William McKinley’s most important Cabinet member was John Hay, the Secretary of State who, as a young man, was private secretary to Abraham Lincoln. Hay was the former ambassador to Great Britain, was a chief sponsor of the Spanish-American War (“a splendid little war” as Hay famously called it), annexed Hawaii and the Philippines, encouraged the Open Door Policy in China and organized a relief expedition to rescue Americans trapped in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Hay continued as Secretary of State when Theodore Roosevelt moved into the White House following President McKinley’s assassination in 1901. While serving under Theodore Roosevelt, Hay concluded the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901 in which Great Britain gave the United States the exclusive right to build and operate the Panama Canal, linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Hay, who is undoubtedly one of the most influential diplomats in American History and one of the most accomplished Secretaries of State, died in office in 1905.
Hay was succeeded as Secretary of State by another influential diplomat, Elihu Root. Root transferred from the War Department where he had served as Secretary of War under McKinley and Roosevelt. Root, outside of Stanton, may have been the greatest, most effective War Secretary in U.S. history. While heading the War Department, Root pushed the U.S. towards war with Spain, ensured the quick success of the war effort, and impressively managed the acquisition and government of new territories won during the Spanish-American War. After the war ended, Root increased the size of the U.S. Army while simultaneously reorganizing it and created the Army War College. As Secretary of State from 1905-1909, Root rebuilt relations with Latin America and Europe in the wake of the Spanish-American War and also established contacts in Asia with the State Department’s newly-created Division of Far Eastern Affairs. Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912, three years after leaving office.
Theodore Roosevelt, a longtime champion of conservation and environmentalism, had two Interior Secretaries who mirrored his beliefs. Ethan Hitchcock, who was originally appointed by President McKinley, served as Interior Secretary for nine years and established the Bureau of Reclamation. Hitchcock was succeeded by James R. Garfield, the son of assassinated President Garfield, whose policy on conservation was closely aligned with Hitchcock and President Roosevelt himself.
Robert Lansing served as Secretary of State for five years under Woodrow Wilson (1915-1920) and through the difficulties of World War I. Lansing replaced perennial Democratic Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, who resigned as Secretary of State in the lead-up to World war I. Lansing was an efficient and influential administrator at the State Department who was a major supporter of U.S. entry into World War I and helped purchase the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark. After the war ended, Lansing broke with President Wilson, thought it was a mistake for Wilson to attend the Paris Peace Conference, and worried about the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations. Wilson demanded Lansing’s resignation after he learned Lansing tried to hold a Cabinet meeting when Wilson was bedridden and incapacitated after suffering the stroke that disabled his Presidency and turned him into an invalid who could barely discharge his office’s responsibilities.
Wilson’s Cabinet also included William McAdoo at Treasury, the first Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and administrator of the country’s railroads during World War I when they were taken over by the railroad. McAdoo married the President’s daughter in 1914 and was a top candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1920. A. Mitchell Palmer was a controversial Attorney General whose policies toward supposed Bolshevik plans were unconstitutional and borderline tyrannical.
Warren G. Harding somehow simultaneously appointed a historically important and hopelessly corrupt Cabinet. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes is one of the figures in American History who should have been President of the United States and would have been amongst the greatest of the Presidents if he had been elected. Hughes was a leader in disarmament following World War I and later appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was one of the country’s wealthiest people when he took office in 1921. Mellon served from 1921-1932, under three Presidents (Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover). Influential and effective throughout most of his term, Mellon was wildly unpopular during Hoover’s term with the onset and continuation of the Great Depression.
Harding appointed Herbert Hoover, the brilliant engineer, self-made millionaire, and relief organizer as Secretary of Commerce in 1921. Hoover was probably the most influential and effective Commerce Secretary in American History, serving under Harding and Coolidge, and showing all of the skills and vision that resulted in Americans electing him President in 1928. Hoover’s active, progressive, and visionary role as Commerce Secretary made his inactivity and seeming inability to take action as President during the Great Depression so confusing.
Other than Mellon, Hoover’s Cabinet included Henry L. Stimson as Secretary of State. Stimson served as Secretary of War for two years under President Taft twenty years earlier and was such a highly-regarded bureaucrat that Franklin D. Roosevelt — a vehement opponent of anything connected to President Hoover — placed him back in charge of the War Department in 1940, where he served throughout World War II, mobilizing the nation’s defense industry, supporting the Lend-Lease Act with Great Britain, and acting as an architect of the U.S.’s development of the atomic bomb. Continuing on during the first months of the Truman Administration following FDR’s sudden death in 1945, Stimson briefed President Truman of the atomic bomb’s existence and urged the use of the new technology against Japan. As Hoover’s Secretary of State from 1929-1933, Stimson established the Stimson Doctrine which refused to recognize territorial acquisitions resulting from aggression by belligerent nations.
FDR replaced Hoover in 1933 and served longer than any other President — twelve years — before dying in the first months of his fourth term in office. FDR’s term saw unprecedented turmoil domestically (due to the Great Depression) and internationally (due to World War II and its direct causes). President Roosevelt’s term obviously featured a Cabinet with some major players who were and would become giants of American domestic and foreign policy and politics.
Labor Secretary Frances Perkins was one of only two people to serve in the Cabinet throughout FDR’s entire term, but that wasn’t Perkins’s only accomplishment. Perkins was the first woman ever appointed to the Cabinet. As Labor Secretary, Perkins was a major factor behind the creation of the Social Security system, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the increase in employment as the nation attempted to fight back from the Great Depression.
Cordell Hull was Roosevelt’s Secretary of State and served as the head of the State Department longer than any other Secretary in history, 11 years. It was Hull who spearheaded the Good Neighbor Policy towards Latin America and cemented strong relationships with allies in South and Central America as the world prepared for the Second World War. Hull also was instrumental in the U.S. decision to give diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933. As American entry into World War II approached, Hull helped craft the Lend-Lease program in order to give assistance that would strengthen Great Britain and other allies in their war efforts. Although he was forced to resign due to ill health shortly before the war ended, Hull won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 largely for his efforts to help create the United Nations.
FDR’s first choice for Secretary of the Treasury, William H. Woodin, played a big part in helping to relieve the banking crisis after Roosevelt took office in 1933 but resigned just nine months into Roosevelt’s term due to ill health. Woodin’s replacement was Henry Morgenthau, Jr. of New York, a close friend and neighbor of Roosevelt. Morgenthau was effective in many ways as the administrator of revenue programs that funded the New Deal programs which alleviated the economic horror of the Great Depression. Morgenthau also was responsible for the U.S. bonds drive which raised money from Americans to help fight World War II.
Roosevelt’s four Attorney Generals included Homer Cummings of Connecticut who was the Administration’s staunch defender of the constitutionality of FDR’s New Deal programs, fired the first shots in the Justice Department’s long-running war against organized crime, and urged FDR to undertake an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to pack the Supreme Court with friendly Justices. FDR’s second and third Attorney Generals, Frank Murphy and Robert Jackson both served brief terms before being appointed to the Supreme Court. Francis Biddle served as Attorney General from 1941-1945 and was the proponent of the reprehensible forcible relocation of 120,00 Japanese-Americans in internment camps for the duration of World War II.
All of FDR’s Naval Secretaries (Claude Swanson, Charles Edison, Frank Knox and James Forrestal) worked to ensure a massive expansion and build-up of the United States Navy both prior to and during World War II. Forrestal became the nation’s first Secretary of Defense in 1947 when the Department of the Navy was integrated with the War Department into a combined Department of Defense under President Truman. As the first Defense Secretary, Forrestal faced serious infighting between the various branches of the military, particularly as the military was confronted by an overhaul following the end of World War II. Forrestal’s difficulties as the first Defense Secretary led to his suicide in 1949.
James A. Farley was Postmaster General during FDR’s first two terms. Postmaster General is no longer a Cabinet-level position, but its importance in the first 150 years of American History is understated. The Postmaster General was frequently one of the most loyal and influential supporters of the President during his campaign because, other than the President, the Postmaster General had more patronage jobs to dispense than any other official. Of these influential Postmasters, Farley might have been the most powerful and the most accomplished Catholic politician until the election of John F. Kennedy. Farley was Postmaster General at the same time that he was Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and it was Farley who was most instrumental in the rise to power of Franklin D. Roosevelt, first as Governor of New York and then as President. As Postmaster General, Farley instituted and perfected air mail, transferring responsibility for air mail delivery from the military to postal aircraft in cooperation with commercial airlines. Farley and FDR’s long relationship deteriorated in 1940 when Farley opposed FDR’s decision to disregard George Washington’s two-term tradition and seek a third term in office. When FDR refused to step aside in 1940, Farley resigned as Postmaster General and challenged the President for the Democratic nomination and came in second at the Democratic National Convention.
Other important officials who served in Roosevelt’s Cabinet included Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, the other Cabinet member who served the entirety of FDR’s term, the director of the New Deal’s Public Works Administration, the American fuel administrator during World War II, and the father of Bill Clinton’s deputy Chief of Staff; Henry Wallace, the progressive Secretary of Agriculture from 1933-1940 who served as FDR’s Vice President from 1941-1945 and was a liberal favorite before being dumped from the ticket in favor of Harry Truman and placed back in the Cabinet as Commerce Secretary (he was fired by Truman in 1946 after criticizing American policy towards the Soviet Union); and Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s closest advisors, who served two years as Commerce Secretary following his influential tenure as the powerful catalyst of New Deal programs — director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (1933-1935) and the Works Progress Administration (1935-1938).
When President Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945, Harry Truman succeeded to the Presidency in the last months of World War II. The war ended in Europe less than a month after FDR’s death, but the war raged on in the Pacific theater until Truman dropped the atomic bomb on Japan in August. Most of FDR’s Cabinet continued on throughout the rest of the war and resigned following peace in order to give Truman a chance to build his own staff.
Edward R. Stettinius was Truman’s first Secretary of State, a holdover from FDR’s Administration who had taken office fairly recently. Stettinius didn’t serve Truman for long. After chairing the San Francisco Conference which drafted the charter of the United Nations, Stettinius resigned to become the first American representative to the U.N. His successor, James F. Byrnes, attended the Potsdam Conference with Truman but urged Truman to be wary of the Soviet Union and was one of the leaders who steered the country into the Cold War. It was Truman’s last two Secretaries of State who would become major figures of 20th Century American foreign policy.
George C. Marshall was the chief of staff of the U.S. Army during World War II and, for all intents and purposes, the architect of the American war effort. As Secretary of State under Truman, Marshall created the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, a far-ranging relief and reconstruction effort which not only helped Europe recover following the horrors of World War II but completely devised an economic plan that brought wide prosperity to many European countries in the aftermath of the war. The Marshall Plan was so effective and so important to so many countries and individuals that he was awarded the 1953 Nobel Peace Prize. Marshall only served two years as Secretary of State, resigning in 1949 due to ill health but he returned to the Cabinet in 1950 as Secretary of Defense.
Truman’s longest serving Secretary of State was Dean Acheson who headed the State Department during Truman’s second term (1949-1953). Acheson oversaw the continued implementation of the Marshall Plan following Marshall’s resignation and helped organize other post-war relief efforts such as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. As Secretary, Acheson led U.S. efforts in forming NATO but was heavily criticized by Republicans for being soft on Communism after China was “lost” to Mao Tse-tung and his Communist forces.
President Eisenhower had a Cabinet with a lot of new faces since Republicans had not held possession of the Presidency and executive branch of the government for twenty years. John Foster Dulles was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State from 1953 until his resignation shortly before dying in 1959. Dulles was harshly anti-Communist, targeted suspected or accused Communists in the State Department, urged the build-up of the military and the military’s nuclear capability, and set the United States on the path towards war in Vietnam and conflicts with Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Like Dules, Attorney General Herbert Brownell responded to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s charges of Communist infiltration of the federal government by targeting suspected Communists in the Justice Department, creating the Internal Security Division and requiring organizations with alleged Communist connections to register with the Attorney General. Brownell and his successor, William P. Rogers, were Eisenhower’s foot soldiers on civil rights issues as the Justice Department began to comply with the desegregation required by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. Ezra Taft Benson of Utah was an influential Agriculture Secretary unpopular with farmers due to his opposition to fixed price supports. Oveta Culp Hobby — the first Secretary of the newly-created Department of Health, Education and Welfare — was the second female Cabinet member and a first-class organizer.
When John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he appointed a strong Cabinet with experienced hands to offset his relative inexperience but even his experienced Cabinet members were relatively young in comparison with their predecessors and in relation to the new President. Many of JFK’s Cabinet members continued on to serve Lyndon Johnson after JFK’s 1963 assassination.
Dean Rusk was Secretary of State throughout the entire terms of JFK and LBJ. Rusk was a proponent of the Cuban embargo and helped place an arms quarantine on Cuba by the Organization of American States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rusk negotiated the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 with the Soviet Union and Great Britain and was probably the strongest, most powerful supporter of the Vietnam War during the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson.
Another solid foundation of support for U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. McNamara, a former auto company executive, reorganized the Defense Department, streamlined the system of operations, centralized power, and modernized the Defense Department bureaucracy. As Secretary, McNamara also established the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Supply Agency, and was the architect for the escalation of the Vietnam War under President Johnson.
The most famous member of JFK’s Cabinet was not only JFK’s closest advisor, but also his brother. Robert F. Kennedy was appointed Attorney General by his brother and continued his lifelong war against organized crime, labor racketerring, and violations of antitrust law. While more of an advocate for civil rights than his brother, RFK was more cautious as Attorney General than he would later become, illegally wiretapped leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and viciously feuded with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Lyndon Johnson who RFK served briefly following JFK’s assassination before resigning to run for the U.S. Senate.
RFK’s successor in the Justice Department during Lyndon Johnson’s Administration was one of the major figures of the Civil Rights Era — Nicholas Katzenbach, who drafted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and confronted Alabama Governor George Wallace when Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to prevent black students from enrolling and desegregating the university. In 1966, LBJ appointed the first Secretary of the newly-created Department of Housing and Urban Development. The first HUD Secretary, Robert C. Weaver, was also the first black member of the Cabinet.
Richard Nixon’s most influential Cabinet official was undoubtedly Henry Kissinger, who started as Nixon’s National Security Adviser but was appointed Secretary of State in 1973, replacing William P. Rogers. Kissinger and Nixon worked hand-in-hand on an ambitious foreign policy that saw Nixon make dramatic visits to China and the Soviet Union in 1972, establish a policy of détente with the Soviets and negotiate an end to the war in Vietnam (which earned Kissinger the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize). Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy eased tensions in the Middle East as Nixon battled the Watergate proceedings domestically and he restored strong diplomatic relations with Egypt and continued on as Secretary of State under President Ford after Nixon’s 1974 resignation.
Some of the other big names from Nixon’s Cabinet are well-remembered for less favorable reasons. Attorney General John Mitchell — a close friend of President Nixon — resigned to become the chairman of the Committee to Reelect the President, or CREEP. In that role, Mitchell helped put together and attempt to cover-up the burglarly at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel which eventually brought down the Nixon Presidency. Mitchell served 19 months in prison for conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice. Mitchell’s successor, Richard Kleindienst was also convicted of a crime after he left office. Nixon’s third Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, resigned when Nixon ordered him to fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor. Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans was convicted of violating campaign finance laws. Treasury Secretary John Connally, who was wounded in the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, was indicted for bribery, perjury and conspiracy to obstruct justice after he resigned from office in 1972 but acquitted of all charges.
Gerald Ford’s short Presidency began with many holdovers from Nixon’s final Cabinet who stayed for most of the next year before Ford cleaned house and staffed the Cabinet with his own choices. Ford’s most prominent Cabinet members, however, were Nixon appointees Henry Kissinger (Secretary of State), William E. Simon (Secretary of the Treasury), and William B. Saxbe (Attorney General), all of whom helped smooth the transition from Nixon-to-Ford and restore confidence in the executive branch after the tumultuous Presidency of Richard Nixon and the brutal Watergate scandal.
When Jimmy Carter defeated Ford for the Presidency in 1976, he came to Washington as an outsider and brought to the White House many new faces. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had served in the Johnson Administration but he took a page from Henry Kissinger with shuttle diplomacy between Egypt and Israel which helped pave the way for the Camp David peace treaty. Vance was a dove when it came to defense policy and international diplomacy and resigned when Carter launched a disastrous military operation to attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran. Much like Carter’s Presidency, his Cabinet was largely unremarkable.
Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 with a mandate from the American electorate and an ideological bent towards change. Secretary of State George P. Schultz frequently clashed with President Reagan and Reagan’s conservative supporters but Schultz served ably and honestly at the helm of the State Department from 1982-1989. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was close to the President but had tense relations with Congress. Weinberger strengthened the U.S. military, presiding over the largest peace-time build-up in American history while the Reagan Administration slashed social programs across the nation. Weinberger was a hawk with defense viewpoints that mirrored the President, opposed arms control discussions with the Soviet Union, and urged the development of the SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative), or “Star Wars” missile defense program. Weinberger’s role in the Reagan Administration’s Iran-Contra Affair is blurry but he was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice after he resigned as Defense Secretary and pardoned by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Bush’s Cabinet was strongly influenced by and made up with cohorts that he served with in the Reagan Administration. Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker, was Reagan’s Chief of Staff and Treasury Secretary, was Bush’s campaign manager in 1988 and 1992 and Bush’s final Chief of Staff, and was the chief legal adviser for Bush’s son, George W. Bush, during the Florida recount and Supreme Court proceedings which decided the 2000 Presidential campaign in George W. Bush’s favor. As Secretary of State, Baker helped oversee the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War, put together the coalition which went to war against Iraq in 1991 and liberated Kuwait, and directly engaged Palestinian and Israeli leaders in peace talks for the very first time.
Undoubtedly, the most influential member of Bush 41’s Cabinet was the Secretary of Defense, former Wyoming Congressman and Chief of Staff under President Ford, Dick Cheney. Cheney strengthened the military’s weapon systems, modernized procurement operations, and downsized American military forces and closed military bases after the 1980’s build-up by President Reagan. As Defense Secretary, Cheney oversaw successful military actions in Panama and Iraq during the term of George H.W. Bush.
Bill Clinton appointed the first female Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and Attorney General, Janet Reno. Clinton’s first Treasury Secretary, Lloyd Bentsen, helped gain passage of the NAFTA and GATT trade agreements. Robert Rubin, Clinton’s second Treasury Secretary, was initially the director of Clinton’s National Economic Council and was at the helm of the Treasury during one of the largest economic expansions in American History. Janet Reno was a tremendously influential, albeit controversial Attorney General. Reno presided over the Justice Department for Clinton’s entire eight-year term but wasn’t especially close to the President and faced challenges such as the standoff and deadly confrontation with the Branch-Davidians in Waco, Texas; the bloody siege in Ruby Ridge, Idaho; the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal building; the Unabomber attacks; the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta; and the Elian Gonzalez custody battle in Miami.
Clinton’s Cabinet also included Energy Secretary (and U.N. Ambassador) Bill Richardson; Labor Secretary Robert Reich; the most effective Secretary in the history of the Department of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala; Dan Glickman at Agriculture; and the most powerful Interior Secretary in history, Bruce Babbitt, who helped numerous endangered species rebound from the brink of extinction and worked with President Clinton to set aside more wilderness area than any President other than Theodore Roosevelt.
Since it’s still too early to gauge the complete legacies of Cabinet members who served in the first decade of the 21st Century under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it is obvious who will likely be discussed in the future. The last three Secretaries of State are all powerful, impactful diplomats. Colin Powell was highly-respected before he became President Bush’s first Secretary of State. Powell was the first black Secretary of State and one of the most influential voices on the international stage arguing for the Iraq War in 2003, even if he wasn’t 100% behind the evidence. Condoleezza Rice was one of President Bush’s most important advisers throughout his eight years in office. As the most powerful black female in American History, she’ll also be remembered as a loyal and steadfast warrior on behalf of the Bush Doctrine.
Donald Rumsfeld is both the youngest and oldest Secretary of Defense in American History. Rumsfeld first served as Defense Secretary under Gerald Ford in the 1970’s and returned to the same job in the Pentagon in 2001. One of the most visible and staunchest advocates of war in Iraq, Rumsfeld was a controversial and powerful member of the Bush 43 Cabinet and ended up being the scapegoat for Bush’s repudiation by the American electorate in the 2006 Congerssional midterm elections.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, John Ashcroft was the architect of the Patriot Act and became a darling of the neo-conservatives and an adversary of the liberals. His successor, Alberto Gonzalez, fared no better and resigned in disgrace after disastrous hearings before Congess on dismissals of U.S. Attorneys that may have been politically-motivated. The 9/11 attacks also resulted in the creation of a new Cabinet-level office — the Department of Homeland Security with Tom Ridge as the first Secretary of the new department.
Just short of two years into his Presidency, Barack Obama’s Administration includes a larger group of Cabinet-level officials (secretaries, executive heads of departments, and officers designated by the President or Congress) than any other Administration in history — a result of the growing size of the U.S. population and the expanding bureaucracy of the American government. Much like George W. Bush’s Cabinet, Obama’s Cabinet is ethnically diverse and it is too soon to judge its potential impact or legacy. From early indications, the heavyweights who will dominate Obama’s Cabinet and Administration are in the more influential positions such as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. The Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Obama’s chief opponent in the campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008. In a surprise move, Obama retained Defense Secretary Robert Gates — an appointee of George W. Bush, Obama’s Republican predecessor — to ensure continuity in the Defense Department during the Presidential transition and in the midst of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As President Obama recovers from his own party’s midterm Congressional election losses and prepares for the 2012 re-election campaign, Cabinet changes will be forthcoming. If re-elected in 2012, Obama will almost certainly overhaul his entire Cabinet as most Presidents due when they began their second terms. Until then, we’ll watch and see who stands out amongst the current Cabinet officials and establishes a legacy that will place them in the history books alongside the most influential of Presidential advisers.