US President Bush all but completed his Cabinet reorganization on Wednesday, appointing a former head of the Republican National Committee, Jim Nicholson, as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and announcing that four other department heads will stay on.
The announcement, coming a day after Treasury Secretary John Snow was asked to remain in office, means that Bush is replacing nine Cabinet secretaries -- the greatest number in recent times. Former president Richard Nixon replaced eight members of his Cabinet when he entered his second term, though the Cabinet was smaller. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan each replaced seven members of their cabinets.
In recent weeks, administration officials have made clear that Bush wanted to have much of his Cabinet in place by inauguration day, allowing him to move on what he has described as an ambitious domestic agenda of overhauling Social Security and the tax system. The process has been so carefully coordinated that only two Cabinet posts -- the secretaries of energy and health and human services -- have been left open after the resignation of current Cabinet members. In each of the other cases, the announcement of a resignation one day has been immediately followed by the naming of a successor.
"It's fair to say that in each of these jobs, the president and Andy Card and Karl knew who they wanted," one White House official said, referring to the White House chief of staff and to Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser.
Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, said that the president spoke on Wednesday to the only Democrat in his Cabinet, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and asked him to stay on. Mineta, who has experienced recent health difficulties, had been widely expected to leave.
He did the same with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Earlier he had spoken with Alphonso Jackson, who took over the Department of Housing and Urban Development when Mel Martinez resigned to run for the Senate from Florida. Martinez won.
Nicholson, who is ambassador to the Vatican, has long been close to Bush and ran the Republican Party during the 2000 campaign. He faces a deep challenge: the Veterans Administration has been attempting to close older, expensive and under-used hospitals, while opening some new ones -- mostly in Sun Belt states where many veterans have settled. One of the most contentious arguments over an older facility has been in Waco, Texas, just kilometers from Bush's ranch, where the president often returns to read headlines in the local papers about the hospital's troubles.
Nicholson is considered a skilled political fixer, and Thursday Bush called him "a patriot, a man of deep conviction who has answered his country's call many times." He served as a paratrooper and an Army Ranger in Vietnam, and earned a bronze star. At the Vatican, Nicholson organized several presidential visits to Pope John Paul II and pressed questions of religious freedom in Russia and China, which has become a critical issue to many of Bush's core political constituents. He also took a role in trying to tamp down objections to the sale of genetically altered foods to some of the world's poorest nations. He is the author of a history of American relations with the Vatican dating back to 1788.