Moonshiners and dope smugglers will take more than casual interest in the appointment of the next secretary of the Treasury. This is because he allocates resources for the U.S. Customs Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. They in turn have the prosaic duty of looking for false bottoms in container ships and sniffing out stills in the mountains where some of the nation's best corn squeezings are produced.
The secretary also answers for the Mint, where, with tiresome monotony, they stamp out the coinage, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which prints the nation's paper currency in a scandal-free process that is a model of boring bureaucratic fidelity.
Even the Internal Revenue Service, the most hated and maligned of Treasury's agencies, is a bureaucracy more driven by the momentum of its massive paperwork and the drudgery of its annual collection cycles than by the genius of a Treasury secretary.
None of these duties has much to do with a Treasury secretary's chief function, which is to radiate steely, imperturbable genius readily observable to the world's markets, its finance ministries and central banks, the nation's own consumers and investors. This becomes critically important as, coincident with a change in presidents, the nation heads into a period of uncertainty in which the terms "soft landing," "hard landing" and "recession" are being waved like flags.
So the question is: Who will be the next president's Robert Rubin? President Albert Gore would have the luxury of simply reappointing Larry Summers, Rubin's trusted friend and heir who would bring a comforting sense of continuity to what is still the longest and most prosperous economic expansion in history. George W. Bush looks to a presidency that would have no obvious choice lined up and exhaustively investigated. His only slam-dunk appointments seem to be Condoleezza Rice for national security and Colin Powell for secretary of state.
Rubin became the gold standard of modern Treasury secretaries, as revered as Alexander Hamilton in his day, by shrewdly interpreting the mystical powers of his office, knowing when to dip into the capital of his credibility and making sound fiscal policy compatible with his wide streak of liberalism. With impeccable Wall Street credentials, he felt comfortable as one of the few people who advised President Clinton to veto welfare reform.
Badly as Bush needs a magical appointment waiting in his wings, those being mentioned do not light bonfires of name recognition. The only mystery about the list is how the name of Bill Archer, the Texas congressman, keeps getting on it. Otherwise, it turns out to be the usual suspects, including three Wall Street figures at or near the mandatory retirement age of most corporations. Since they've already made their bundles, we can assume they won't be antsy to leave once they've had the heady experience of seeing their signature on the currency. They include Donald Marron, 66, chairman of PaineWebber Inc.; Walter Shipley, 65, the retired chairman of Chase Manhattan; and John Hennessy, 64, chairman of Credit Suisse-First Boston.
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