A very weird thing happened when Colin Powell announced a couple of weeks ago that he would not be speaking at -- or even attending -- this year's Republican convention. The explanation that he and a few spokesmen offered, dutifully parroted by the press, was that, by tradition, cabinet secretaries do not attend party conventions. Powell explained that as such an official, “I am obliged not to participate in any way, shape, fashion, or form in parochial, political debates.” Robin Wright of The Washington Post informed readers that “in keeping with tradition, Cabinet officials do not speak at the conventions. … So Powell will not appear.”
This time-honored tradition may have been unfamiliar to some. That might be because it was made up. Many, many cabinet officials have, in fact, spoken at party conventions in the past, from Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler in 1984 to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in 1992. And indeed, slotted for a prime-time appearance tonight, after Bill Frist, is none other than Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
Rod who, you ask? You'd be forgiven for not knowing much about the 71-year-old Paige, our first black education secretary. Perhaps you remember reading about a nasty little controversy last winter, when he characterized the National Education Association as “a terrorist organization.” Or maybe you've seen the headlines blaring revelations of Enron-style accounting at Houston public schools in the 1990s, when Paige was superintendent. The strict testing and targets regime he imposed there had largely been credited for inspiring the “miracle” of dramatically improved scores and graduation rates across the state under Governor George W. Bush; only in the past year has it become clear the extent to which educational-performance statistics were distorted or falsified under Paige's watch.
Of course, Paige will be discussing none of this tonight. Instead, he'll be touting the Bush administration's signature education reform, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was signed into law in 2002. This is an important achievement for the president. It's one of the last, limping, bloodied vestiges of the “compassion agenda” he ran on four years ago, and one of the few domestic achievements he can point to that doesn't simply guarantee a chorus of catcalls from the legislation's target audience (think of seniors and his misbegotten Medicare drug law). NCLB is certainly controversial, the initial implementation of it -- at once disorganized and woefully underfunded -- even more so. But it does at least mark a new chapter in federal involvement in public education, and it puts forth a few core mechanisms around which further reforms can be made in the future.
The thing that's worth keeping in mind tonight, however, is that Rod Paige had nothing to do with NCLB. It wasn't his fault; the president and the president's advisers, back in 2001, simply shut him out of the process of drafting the legislation and working with Congress to get it passed.
As Noam Scheiber recounted in a 2001 New Republic article, from the outset of the new administration, it was clear that Paige had been designated a mere figurehead, excluded from the internal policy and strategy sessions that were being driven largely by Bush's education aide, Sandy Kress, and his domestic-policy adviser, Margaret LaMontagne. Paige's public statements were off message, often belied by the latest administration decisions, and they showed that he was barely being briefed. In June of 2001, Kress told The Wall Street Journal, on the record, that Paige was “a little bit on the periphery.” Scheiber characterized the exclusion of the Education Department from major education policy making as unprecedented, and called this “blatant marginalization of the only African American domestic Cabinet secretary” stunning for an administration so boastful of its dedication to cabinet diversity.
Paige hasn't had much more impact since the passage of NCLB in 2002. Mostly he's spent his tenure promoting the new law in articles and speeches and serving as an administration cheerleader every year when the president shortchanges education in the budget. (In June, Paige offered some constructive criticism of those concerned about the underfunding of education in the president's 2005 budget. “They are whiners,” he said.) Aside from touting the law he was excluded from collaborating on and serving as a dutiful campaigner for Bush's allies (he made visits to Florida on behalf of Governor Jeb Bush's re-election campaign eight times in 2001 and 2002), Paige's accomplishments as education secretary mainly consist of reforming the department's internal organization and sprucing up its physical headquarters in Washington with new red schoolhouse and chalkboard designs on the doors.
All of which is to say that while Paige hasn't been any kind of abomination as education secretary, he's not one you would expect to be rewarded with a primo convention speech. After all, aren't prime-time speakers at a party's convention, when they're not actual family members of the candidates, usually presumed to be major figures in that party or at least individuals of some specific and significant achievement?
Why Paige, then? The answer likely says less about our education secretary than it does about the cynicism of the Bush campaign. It brings us back to Powell.
Colin Powell gave an electrifying speech at the 2000 convention in Philadelphia. Both the moderate inclusiveness of his words and his very presence as a powerful African American leader within the Republican galaxy seemed to give substance to the Bush campaign's rhetoric about a new, broadened, reformed Grand Old Party. But the country -- indeed, the world -- has watched in the ensuing four years as Powell encountered his own kind of “blatant marginalization” within the administration, an estrangement that likely has more to do with his absence in New York this week than any fantastical tradition of cabinet nonpartisanship.
Now, as Bush makes a frenzied, last-minute pivot from the right to try to reclaim the mantle of compassionate moderation for the last two months of the campaign, the need to showcase a diverse lineup on the prime-time convention schedule is paramount. Unfortunately, Condoleezza Rice, the other black cabinet-level official besides Powell with real clout and stature, has been as tainted as Powell has by the administration's central policy failure in Iraq. And so that leaves us with Rod Paige, offered up in an unusually transparent public-relations gesture as the token of racial diversity in this year's edition of a quadrennial GOP dress-up game.
And that's the real tradition being honored at this convention.
Sam Rosenfeld is a writer for the Prospect's online edition.