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Norm Rice is ill-suited for nasty atmosphere of other Washington

He wouldn’t fit in, and maybe he shouldn’t wish to. I was going to tell him that earlier, but didn’t want to seem a killjoy. If Norm Rice had ambitions to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who was I to argue against it? But after some gossip in the White House tried to throw cold water on the Seattle mayor’s prospective nomination early this week I found myself muttering to an imaginary Norm, “Forget it, tell ’em to get lost!”

Washington, D.C. and Washington State have 3000 miles of political culture separating them and Mayor Norm Rice is over at the “reasonable” end of even the Seattle spectrum. In our informal polity, he’s respected, but treated like a next door neighbor. Even if people don’t always agree with you in a job like mayor of Seattle, you and they learn to play fair for real–we have to live with one another for a lifetime.

Not so in Our Nation’s Capital. “If you want a friend in Washington,” Harry Truman said, “get a dog.” Whereas Rice, a good Seattlite, learned to hold his fire, the culture of Washington, D.C. is get them before they get you. Bureaucrats in the Municipal Building may have their wiles (they are bureaucrats, after all; wiles are issued with the union card), but ultimately they share the same Seattle “nice” culture and want to get along. In fact, that spirit infects some of the state offices of federal departments, including HUD’s. They come here from the East wearing an expression of “I’m watching my back,” but after a few months they are smiling at strangers and waiting for the light to change before crossing the street.

But in a town like D.C., where crossing with the light is the surest way to get run over, the process works the other way. First you turn your smiles into frowns and then you turn in your friends. In the central maze of HUD, where nearly $20 billion is spent annually, the masters are not political appointees, but the 11,000 bureaucrats who burrow with ease through years of encrusted regulations and fairly glide past a hundred hypocrtical ethics snares. Their view typically is that a Secretary can’t possibly know coming in what it takes a GS 15 twenty years to learn and by the time he starts to get it he’ll be on his way out. After all, the average tenure for top presidential appointees–in any administration–is 18 months.

A Mr. Outside like Norm Rice–constantly pushed to set directions, testify on the Hill and make speeches in Detroit –will have to have a Mr. Inside, and he’ll need a long time employee to fill that role. But will that officer be loyal to him or to the institutional culture?

HUD, if not a destroyer of bright political careers, is certainly a varnish remover. Look at Jack Kemp, another leader, not a detail man, who as Secretary planned to privatize large sections of public housing. He made a brave try but wound up having to compromise so much with the entrenched bureaucrats that he came under attack from his own party. Now there is Henry Cisneros, former mayor and shining star of San Antonio. He’s not leaving exactly because he can’t resist all the opportunities elsewhere.

Leave HUD to the likes of Andrew Cuomo, the current assistant secretary and standard government apparatchik. Son of the former governor, New Yorker Cuomo will be right at home. Of course, like any HUD Secretary, he’ll spend much of his HUD career appearing before investigating committees of Congress, but there is some thought that he thrives in such an environment.

If our Mayor is still eager to serve his country, let him ask for an ambassadorship.Don’t enter the capital under the “big city mayor” flag that would stereotype him at HUD, but as the chief executive of a world class city with extensive international dealings. Get an ambassadorship to an Asian country that represents our region’s as well as our nation’s future–the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Korea. Overseas he’d be the president’s honored representative and allowed to conduct his work outside the jaundiced view of investigators either in the media or Congress. And the snipers from within the Administration–who are always the worst–are less likely to aim that far.

Of course, there is another obvious option: stay right here. Oh, maybe Hizzoner needs some R&R, and I, for one, would be pleased if he took off for a month of sun in Hawaii to read a couple of novels and drag his honorable toes through the surf. He has it coming.

Then come home–back to mostly positive challenges, back to a leadership-craving, spectacular world city envied by almost everyone else, and back to the culture of “nice.” That culture looks very good when you’ve been away.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.