With President Obama’s admission of “screwing up” after the withdrawal of Tom Daschle as potential secretary of Health and Human Services, the new chief executive is quickly approaching a record of dubious distinction. Over the storied history of our nation, the failure of presidential cabinet appointees to take their seats has been rare and generally far less contentious than those of the current era. (For purposes of mathematical accuracy, we shall omit the near simultaneous departure of Nancy Killefer, as she was not technically destined for the cabinet before “tax issues” tanked her advancement.) To place Obama’s selections in context, a brief look at the Congressional record is in order.
From the founding of our nation through the tenure of George W. Bush, a grand total of twenty cabinet nominees have departed the stage without serving in their intended office. Nine were rejected by the Senate and eleven withdrew of their own accord. It took until 1970 for that number to reach 14, with the remaining six taking place since Lyndon Johnson was in office.
Previous failures strike me as more compelling than the current crop. Be they sinister figures or innocent victims of circumstance, they leap off the pages of history as engaging actors in the tale of America. Their stories stand in sharp contrast to the mundane and tawdry tax cheats, shadowy influence peddlers, and pay-to-play artists we are saddled with today.
Historical reasons for personal recusal ran the gamut from the mundane to the perfidious, beginning with the little-noted Lucius Stockton, selected as secretary of war under John Adams in 1801. Later, Andrew Johnson sought to seat Thomas Ewing for a third term in the War Department, but the Senate was outraged at Johnson’s firing of Edwin Stanton and refused to act on the proposal. Ewing left the field of battle in disgust.
Rejections by the Senate were slightly more rare, but generally failed to reach the levels of real or perceived malice and mendacity demonstrated by modern candidates. Roger Taney lost his confirmation battle for the position of secretary of the treasury for being a “stooped, sallow, cringing tool of Jacksonian power.” None of this, however, prevented him from becoming the fifth chief justice of the Supreme Court and soiling his legacy by penning the majority opinion in Dred Scott.