Sending a Message on the Future

Taylor Jones / Cagle CartoonsPresident Barack Obama has started naming his Administration’s team for the next four years. Some appointees will be ‘hold overs,’ and others will be somewhat as expected—people involved in his campaign re-election or high profile endorsees of the president. But there will be some who are both unexpected or even former opponents, in some form or fashion. All of the major appointments at the national level require the advice and consent of the Senate, and since the Republicans have a near majority, the confirmation process promises some exciting theater.

This brings to mind some of the appointments and committee assignments from the Golden Era of Florida politics, the 1970’s and 80’s, and then today:

  • Appointment of Ollie Keller as Secretary of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services by Governor Reubin Askew in 1976.  The controversy with this appointment traced back to some previous disagreements between Reubin Askew and Senate President Dempsey Barron, both legislators from the panhandle in the late 60’s. The confirmation became a question of brute political strength—prompting Barron to tell the governor, “Stay the hell out of my senate.”  Askew’s response was equally memorable, “Mr. President, the senate belongs to the people of Florida, not you.”
  • Appointment of Jack Gordon as the Chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee by Senate President Phil Lewis.  This appointment came after Lewis had out dueled Gordon in the close election of the Senate Presidency in 1979.  Gordon had actually declared that he had the pledges for the important post, but Lewis announced the surprise support of Senator Barron and won.  Some say the appointment of his foe to the most important position in the legislature was a reflection of President Lewis’ deep religious faith in forgiving others.
  • Appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State by President Barack Obama in 2008.  This was a similar scenario as that with President Lewis above, but the motivation here probably had nothing to do with religion but the sincere interest in shoring up the unity in the Democratic Party.  Last night on the CBS television news magazine, 60 Minutes,  the President emphasized to reporter Steve Kroft that the appointment of Secretary Clinton was primarily made to capture the talent and experience of the former first lady.  Critics might say the added benefit is that the president kept Former President Bill Clinton in tow with the appointment of his wife.

The point to be made here is that the appointment process in political governance is terribly important for a number of reasons,  primarily to obtain the very best talent available for service.  But as shown by the Askew-Barron fight above, the more important the appointment, the more necessary it is to work the appointment process in advance of announcing the appointment.

From the Lewis-Gordon appointment, there  are numerous benefits of doing the unexpected and demonstrating empathy for opponents, and ultimately the effectiveness of the governance.  Senator Gordon not only became one of the most valuable members of the Florida Senate after appointment by President Lewis as the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, but he was among the president’s most loyal supporters.  Gordon also became extremely close friends with the person who denied him the presidency—Senator Barron.

In the Clinton Appointment by Obama, the president got a ‘threefer’—the appointment of an experienced and talented Secretary of State who enjoyed a good relationship with his party on the hill, a lease of sorts on the energetic  former  President, and surprising unity and esprit de corps in his new administration.

Not all appointments do as well as three examples.  But they do point out that the future  look of a new governance organization may very well rest with the quality and thoughtfulness of the initial appointees.

Robert W. McKnight is a former Florida Senator and Representative. He has written two books on Florida politics and provides political commentary on television, The Huffington Post, The Contributor, and Florida media. His Blog is

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