A Sideways Glance at the Cabinet

This is a polished and updated version of a column that appeared in my long-defunct weekly newspaper on January 26, 1977, six days after Gerald Ford relinquished the presidency to Jimmy Carter.

President Ford, shortly before leaving office, urged Republican partypersons to form a “shadow” cabinet. (This is an old tradition in Britain, where the Loyal Opposition assigns certain of its members in Parliament the duty of keeping cabinet ministers honest.) But before proposing a shadow cabinet, Mr. Ford should have reconsidered the need for a cabinet in the first place. I will venture to do so here.

Take the Defense Department, which contains three military departments: Army, Navy, Air Force. Right away you can see the possibilities for confusion, if not riot, because there is no Secretary of the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps is a separate military service—which is the first thing that any Marine with one day in boot camp will tell you. But the Marine Corps is administratively in the Department of the Navy. If for nothing else, the Secretary of the Navy is paid to referee the daily combat between the Navy and and the Marines Corps.

But. you may ask, why should the Navy and Marine Corps be in conflict if they belong to the same department? If you have to ask, you haven’t seen any movies made during World War II, wherein it was common to have a scene that included the following elements: a bar, some sailors, some jarheads (as Marines are often called), and a brawl. Those fraternal tiffs have not been forgotten. For many decades after World War II, the Chief of Naval Operations (the top sailor, who has nothing to do with operations) and the Commandant of the Marine Corps (the top Marine) were housed in different buildings.* (Who says that time heals all wounds?) I question the wisdom of the decision to house both of them in the Pentagon. It’s a huge place, so they can be kept well apart, but …

Before moving on, I must mention the Navy-Air Force relationship. The Air Force has an air force, as you might expect. The Navy, too. has an air force. The result is that the Navy and Air Force spend a lot of time quibbling about whose air force should have the biggest, fastest airplanes. Neither will admit that it has the most expensive ones, of course.

The fact that the Navy has an air force leads to another reason for having a Secretary of the Navy. It is he who must make the Navy’s case for its air force. Why couldn’t the Chief of Naval Operations do that? Well, the Marines have their own air force, too. If the Chief of Naval Operations were to go before Congress to plead his case, the Commandant would have to do the same. Imagine what would happen if they showed up on the same day!

If you think inter-service rivalry is a problem in the Department of the Navy, consider life in the Pentagon, which also houses the chiefs of staff of the Army and Air Force. There are not only four air forces to fight over (yes, the Army has one, too), there are two services with soldiers (but don’t call a Marine that), two with long-range missiles (the Air Force and Navy), four with air-defense missiles, and so on, into the night. Thus the need for a Secretary of Defense.

Therefore, as to the necessity of cabinet officers: it is dire — in the Pentagon, at least. If the Secretary of Defense didn’t get the troops pretty much in order before they marched to Congress with their demands, Congress would have to referee the fights among the services. This would leave Congressmen with no time to interview secretaries (the typing kind**).

Long live the cabinet, whoever they may be!
* The Commandant’s office and other elements of Headquarters, Marine Corps, moved to the Pentagon in 1996.

**A reference to a scandal that broke in 1976. U.S. Representative Wayne Hays (D-Ohio) had hired one Elizabeth Ray as a member of his staff. Ms. Ray was nominally a secretary, but her real job description was “mistress.” She admitted that “I can’t type. I can’t file. I can’t even answer the phone.”