by Jules Witcover

There was a time when a president and the opposition party in Congress could agree on certain basics, such as the right of the chief executive to select members of his cabinet with no fuss or bother.

The president's most important choice in this regard was of his secretary of state, the first among supposed equals in the cabinet and once at the top of the ladder in terms of presidential succession after the vice president.

That pecking order at one point was changed by statute to elevate the speaker of the House and then the Senate president pro tem on the list, on the premise that anyone ascending to the presidency under the Constitution ought to have first been an elected official.

Passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967 providing for filling a vacancy in the vice presidency by presidential nomination and congressional confirmation made it less likely that the job of secretary of state would be a legal pathway to the presidency. But the position has remained the ranking appointive job in any administration.

Not foreseen was that seeking the post of the president's chief administrative officer in the field of foreign policy, and hence the chief diplomat, would require a prospective nominee to undertake the equivalent of a public political campaign to achieve.

That seems to be the case with United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, reportedly in under consideration by President Obama to succeed retiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at or soon after the end of Obama's first term.

Rice has taken to television screens in what looks like a lobbying campaign for the job, forced by circumstances of the September terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi in which U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three aides were killed. Her initial public assertion that the attack was a response to an anti-Islam video, not to a planned terrorist operation, has been leaped on by key Republicans in Congress as part of an effort to cover up administration malfeasance.

Rice's repeated defense has been that she spoke from U.S. intelligence conclusions at the time, only later corrected by her when terrorism was recognized as the root cause. That insistence has been brushed aside by Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and was more recently questioned by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, known as a conspicuous voice of moderation and bipartisanship.

The brouhaha began during the last stages of the presidential election and was seized upon by the Mitt Romney campaign and surrogates to accuse Obama of dissembling at the least, and irresponsibility at the worst. Controversy has continued ever since, in part because of Rice's repeated public defense of her responses to the calamitous incident.

The president himself raised the visibility of the argument by calling the remarks of McCain and Graham against Rice "outrageous" and inviting them to take him on rather than Rice, if they insisted on laying blame. It's hard not to conclude that Rice has continued to defend herself with White House sanction.

Through all this, another prospective nominee at least in speculation has been Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and defender of the Obama foreign policy policy in most respects. Kerry, remaining silent about his interest, has thus been left slowly twisting in the wind. His qualifications for the job are many and widely acknowledged, and Senate confirmation would seem a certainty if Obama were to bypass Rice and choose him.

By the same token, all the attention foisted on the impending nomination risks making Obama's eventual selection a test of his willingness to stand up to Rice's critics, rather than the sober judgment such a critical choice demands.

The president predictably has said that if he were to consider Rice at all for the job, he would do so strictly on grounds of which prospective nominee would best fit his needs at the State Department. That of course is how it should be, and Obama should not waver from that determination in the face of all the furor from his Senate critics.


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An Unsightly Scrap Over Cabinet Nomination | Politics

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