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Where geography still matters

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Ed Quillen | Nov 23, 2008 12:15 PM

As president-elect Barack Obama goes about picking a cabinet, we hear a lot about a book of popular history that was published three years ago: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Some parallels seem almost eerie. Abraham Lincoln's main rival for the Republican nomination in 1860 was William M. Seward, a senator from New York, and Lincoln chose him for secretary of state. Barack Obama's main rival for the Democratic nomination in 2008 was Hillary R. Clinton, a senator from New York, and Obama has chosen her for secretary of state.

The presidential cabinet consists of the appointed heads of various executive departments, like State, Treasury, and Defense.

Because Lincoln's official staff consisted of just two clerks, the president had to rely on his cabinet for many functions that are now performed by the 1,800 employees of the Executive Office of the President -- policy development, budget preparation, appointment vetting, legal counsel, etc.

What hasn't changed since Lincoln's day is the political demand that the cabinet be somewhat representative of the country. Nowadays, presidential appointments are expected to reflect gender and ethnic diversity; while selecting a cabinet 16 years ago, Bill Clinton complained about who seemed to be pushing him toward quotas in his cabinet appointments.

Lincoln faced similar challenges. In fact, the complications were greater then because the "Grand Old Party" was only six years old, formed in 1854 to oppose expansion of slavery into the territories. The Republican Party of the day was not a national party -- Lincoln hadn't even appeared on the ballot in the South. It was an uneasy coalition of former Whigs, free-soil Democrats, abolitionists, unionists, and anti-immigrant Know-Nothings. Lincoln needed representatives of those contentious factions in his government if he planned to hold his party together, and he tried for a balance between former Whigs and former Democrats.

But another major focus of the bean-counters of that era was something we might call "geographic diversity." Every region expected one of its own in Lincoln's cabinet.

So New England got Gideon Welles of Connecticut as Secretary of the Navy. The mid-Atlantic got William M. Seward of New York as Secretary of State and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania as Secretary of War. Ohio got Salmon P. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury. The border states got Attorney General Edward Bates of Missouri and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair of Maryland. The West of that day -- today's Midwest -- got Caleb Smith of Indiana as Secretary of the Interior.

Lincoln even approached a Southerner -- Rep. James A. Gilmer of North Carolina, a former Whig -- to serve in his cabinet, but Gilmer declined.

In the Confederacy, President Jefferson Davis faced similar pressure, according to biographer William J. Cooper, Jr.: Although Davis "had no personal political debts to pay or party factions to satisfy, he did have geographic considerations. The [cabinet] officers he chose represented each state in the Confederacy, except his home state."

These days, there doesn't appear to be much geographic concern, with one exception. As in Lincoln's day, Interior is a cabinet slot almost guaranteed to go to a Westerner.

You have to go back nearly 40 years to find an Interior secretary who wasn't a Westerner, Rogers C.B. Morton of Maryland. He was appointed by Richard Nixon in 1971 after his first Interior secretary, Walter J. Hickel of Alaska, began criticizing the Vietnam War and got fired.

Since then, the post has been held by Stanley K. Hathaway of Wyoming, Thomas Kleppe of North Dakota, Cecil Andrus of Idaho, James G. Watt of Colorado, William P. Clark of California, Donald Hodel of Oregon, Manuel Lujan of New Mexico, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, Gale Norton of Colorado, and Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho.

The latest rumors have it that Obama might appoint Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado or Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona to Interior. They're both Westerners.

Geography may not matter much to modern presidents as they consider their cabinet appointments, with one major exception. You could look at Interior as a sort of "affirmative action" guarantee of a cabinet slot for a Westerner.

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