Clarence Page: Welcome to Donald Trump's Bizarro World cabinet picks
By By Clarence Page
Dec 18, 2016 at 6:00 AM
Mr. Trump's cabinet picks are swinging the administration into a Bizarro World version of its former self, says Clarence Page.
As low as my expectations might be for the Donald Trump presidency, he finds new ways to drop the bar even lower.
Take his cabinet nominees. Please.
They aren't all bad. Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the president-elect's choice for secretary of defense, comes well-recommended by old guard defense experts like Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and turns out to be nowhere near as nutty as his nickname implies.
And it's hard to dislike the bipartisan appeal of Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.), although Mr. Trump's choice to name her U.N. ambassador is a puzzlement. She has little experience in foreign relations but she opposes President Obama's Iran nuclear deal, so maybe that's good enough for Mr. Trump.
But some of Mr. Trump's other choices illustrate how dramatically an election can swing our government's executive branch into a Bizarro World version of its former self -- like the fictional planet in DC comics where everything is the reverse of life on Earth.
This is particularly true when government appointees don't seem to care very much for government.
For secretary of labor, Mr. Trump wants Andrew Puzder, a fast-food executive with a negative attitude toward additional overtime pay for workers and raising the minimum wage.
To head the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Trump proposes Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney general, a climate-change skeptic, who is currently engaged in the latest in a series of lawsuits he's filed against the agency Mr. Trump would now like him to head.
And I can't leave out Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican. A tough critic of the Voting Rights Act, Mr. Trump has tapped him to be attorney general, a move that, aided by a Republican Congress, puts him in an excellent position to launch a Reconstruction-style collapse of civil rights enforcement with the enthusiasm of a fox guarding a henhouse.
Still, the prizewinner for puzzling choices may well be Trump's naming of Dr. Ben Carson, his former rival for the Grand Old Party's presidential nomination, to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Sure, Ben Carson is a nice guy with a great ghetto-to-Gold-Coast, pull-up-your-bootstraps narrative. The retired neurosurgeon has been the subject of best-selling books and a made-for-TV movie, "Gifted Hands," starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Dr. Ben.
But what does he know about housing and urban development policy? Well, he owns a house and grew up in Detroit. Fine. But driving a car does now make you an auto mechanic.
HUD doesn't need a brain surgeon. It needs people with good brains for housing and urban development. Dr. Carson's views on fighting poverty, expressed in his speeches and writings, leans heavily on quaint, old-fashioned, self-help values. Poverty, he once told a television interview in a much-replayed clip, "is really more of a choice than anything else."
That might be true for those of us who were born poor but fortunate enough to have resources at hand, such as a fully functional family and good schools. But what do you do for those who were not born so lucky?
Mr. Trump's urban "disaster" views sound frozen in the riot years of the '60s. Poverty fighters in both parties whom I have covered in recent decades have learned a lot of valuable lessons about what works and what doesn't in urban policy.
Sometimes the lessons have come with unintended consequences. For example, the demolition of Chicago's public housing high-rises restored peace to some violently troubled real estate. But it led to a dispersal of street gangs into some of the city's poorest neighborhoods -- and one of the highest gun violence rates in the nation.
But there's enough good news in public-private partnerships, housing vouchers and other innovations to make many "inner-city" neighborhoods into oases of gentrification. To help those who have been left behind by these signs of urban hope, our nation needs wise leadership that doesn't require on-the-job training.