A flawed choice to head the Peace Corps
By John Coyne
The Peace Corps is about to be sacrificed for the first time in 41 years on the altar of ethnic politics. For an organization whose mission should raise it above the political commonplace, what we have here is a process rich in grim irony.
This sadly bipartisan spectacle, reflecting the ugly underside of how political appointments are made by the executive branch and confirmed by the Senate, centers on President Bushs nomination of Gaddi Vasquez of Orange County, Calif., to serve as Peace Corps director. He is unqualified, and worse.
Normally, the appointment to head this small, independent federal agency, with a budget of $275 million and a staff of about 2,000 in the United States and overseas, is not the subject of great debate. Since President Kennedy chose Sargent Shriver to head the Peace Corps in 1961, every nominee has brought some record of either distinction or discernible promise to the post, and all were easily confirmed by the Senate. No nominee has been tainted by scandal, until Vasquez was plucked out of nowhere by the Bush administration.
In an embarrassing confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the nominee had to answer questions as to how, as an Orange County supervisor in the mid-1990s, he allowed the county to go bankrupt, costing taxpayers $1.7 billion.
Severely chastised by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Vasquez resigned his public post just ahead of a recall campaign and went on to serve as a public affairs official at a California public utility that is also facing bankruptcy. Abandoning his last public office left him in a position to dump $100,000 of leftover campaign funds into the Bush presidential campaign.
Not surprisingly, during the hearing Vasquez displayed a remarkable lack of understanding of the Peace Corps, its mission, its history, and how he would lead it. It was clear to me, as a former Peace Corps recruiting official, that Vasquez would not even make the first cut to serve as a volunteer.
The only possible explanation for such a disgraceful nomination has to be Vasquezs membership in a powerful ethnic voting bloc in the countrys most populous state. To be sure, George W. Bush is not the first president to make an ethnically based appointment. But to inflict an unfit candidate on the Peace Corps simply because he is a conservative Hispanic-American political activist insults the 7,000 volunteers living and working in 70 developing countries.
Perhaps the cruelest slap at the Peace Corps comes not from President Bush, but from his Senate Democratic allies in the struggle for the Vasquez nomination, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California and, incredibly, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, the only former Peace Corps volunteer in the Senate and chairman of the subcommittee that oversees Peace Corps affairs.
One might reasonably expect that the senators from California, which has produced more Peace Corps volunteers than any other state, would fight to stop this poor nomination. Yet Boxer introduced Vasquez at the hearing and, straining hard, listed what they said were his qualifications for the job. This transparent political gesture may well backfire; Republicans could use the Peace Corps directorship to rehabilitate Vasquez politically and then enlist him to run against a Democrat in California.
To the dismay of many of us who served in the Peace Corps, Dodd also seems to be playing the ethnic card. Having torpedoed the nomination of Reagan-era conservative Otto Reich, a Cuban-American, to serve as assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs, Dodd apparently has calculated that he cannot alienate an important Democratic constituency, even if it comes at the Peace Corps expense.
With any luck, someone in the Senate, perhaps Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), who for years has fought against giving foreign affairs jobs to unqualified, big-contributor nominees from both parties, will step in to prevent Vasquez from assuming a job for which he is so spectacularly ill-suited.
Perhaps President Bush will then nominate an experienced director who reflects the Peace Corps great legacy of service, and who will be a source of pride to volunteers around the world.
John Coyne is the editor of www.peacecorpswriters.org and until recently was manager of the New York Peace Corps Office. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer and associate Peace Corps director in Ethiopia during the 1960s.