WASHINGTON - Putting the finishing touches on weeks of senior staff shifts, President Bush tapped GOP stalwart Jim Nicholson yesterday as his next secretary of veterans affairs as the White House let it be known that four other Cabinet members would stay on into a second term.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso R. Jackson, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta would remain in place.
In recent days, the White House has also announced that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow planned to stay on as well.
Bush has yet to nominate replacements for Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, who announced his resignation last week, or Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who said last month that he, too, would leave.
If confirmed by the Senate, as expected, Nicholson would oversee a department of 230,000 employees that manages $70 billion a year in health care and other benefits for the nation's 25 million military veterans.
He would replace Anthony J. Principi, who informed Bush in a Nov. 16 resignation letter that he was ready to "move on to fresh opportunities" and leave the administration.
"Jim Nicholson is a patriot, a man of deep conviction who has answered his country's call many times," Bush said in naming him as Principi's replacement in a brief White House ceremony.
A Depression-era child, the third of seven, Nicholson said he grew up in rural Iowa "dirt poor in a tenant house without plumbing and sometimes without food." The U.S. Military Academy at West Point became his ticket out of poverty and into the U.S. Army, where he spent eight years in active service - including Ranger duty in Vietnam, where he was decorated for combat valor - and 22 more years in the reserves.
"Our military is the pride of our country. We can't pay them enough to do the things that we ask of them - the sacrifices, the separations, the heroics," Nicholson said as Bush looked on. "They have never, ever let us down. We must not let them down, either."
Nicholson, 66, earned a master's degree in public policy from Columbia University in New York and a law degree from the University of Denver. He practiced law, built a business and became a major Republican fund-raiser and policy-maker, serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1997 until 2000, when Bush was elected president. Bush rewarded Nicholson by naming him U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
"We will really miss Rome," Nicholson said at yesterday's ceremony, attended by his wife of 37 years, Suzanne, and two of their three children.
The Nicholson nomination was the latest in a broad slate of Cabinet changes, as Bush retools for a second term.
Senate confirmation hearings for the nominees are expected in January, and most outgoing Cabinet secretaries have agreed to stay on until the Senate approves their replacement.