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Donna Shalala : The Administration's Point Woman at Health and Human Services

July 18, 1993|David Lauter | David Lauter covers the White House for The Times. He interviewed Donna Shalala in the secretary's office

WASHINGTON — When President Bill Clinton announced last December his intention to name Donna Shalala to head the government's largest civilian bureaucracy--the Department of Health and Human Services--conservative activists chortled.

Dubbing her the "high priestess of political correctness" and threatening to attack her record as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, the conservatives predicted Shalala--a 52-year-old career public administrator and an associate of Hillary Rodham Clinton's at the Children's Defense Fund--would become the center of the new Administration's liberal wing.

Shalala survived those attacks and won confirmation easily. But she soon came under fire from within. White House aides accused her of involving them in politically damaging arguments over, for example, admitting Haitians infected with the HIV virus into the country. An early proposal to have the government buy up the nation's supply of childhood vaccines and guarantee immunizations for all came under attack in Congress and had to be pulled back. Some White House aides even predicted that Shalala would be the first of Clinton's Cabinet to resign.

The critics underestimated her. A tough, experienced manager--she headed New York's Hunter College and was assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Carter Administration before taking the Wisconsin job--Shalala is smart, indefatigable, well connected with the Clintons and not afraid to remind her opponents of any of those facts.

Nor has she turned out to be the uncompromising liberal that many conservatives feared--and many liberal activists had hoped for. Instead, Shalala has bluntly urged her former colleagues on the Democratic Party's left to recognize the new realities of fiscal tightness and the need to reform programs, such as welfare, that have lost public support.

In an interview as she headed West for a series of appearances highlighting health-care reform and the needs of children--two favorite issues--Shalala discussed the Administration's rocky start, her sense of today's political realities and the priorities her department will pursue in such areas as welfare reform.


Question: Beyond your line responsibilities, what do you see as your role in the Administration?

Answer: I have long ties to the women's community. I bring other constituencies--I also have ties to minority communities. And obviously, to the world of world-class research universities. So I can bring some constituencies that I'm used to working with. I'm used to dealing with the press. I'll be one of the spokespeople, one of the people who sells the Administration's plans. Because I bring stature to my job independent of the Administration, I can help. I'm one of the people they'll turn to to help.

The other thing is, I'm one of the handful of people they have that actually knows how to run something, that's an experienced administrator.

My responsibilities are so wide-ranging, my long-term friendships with the President and the First Lady are so deep, that I'm going to have lots of opportunities. I spent most of my career running big, complex places in which I've been described as "energetic and skillful." That's the way I'll end up at the end of this Administration. It's not going to be much different. That's what I do. And if we can do enough of it, the President can get reelected.


Q: Were you afraid coming in, that people would try to stereotype you?

A: They're not treating me like I'm the house liberal. They're not assuming that I represent some wing of the party.

I've spent my whole life with people underestimating me. (It's) the best way to come in. That stuff was over in a month. It began with that political correctness stuff, but it disappeared after my hearing. You noticed that with everything that everybody reported before my hearing, none of it was there. The press got hoodwinked. Everybody got snookered. The right wing told them there was all that stuff there, and it turned out there was nothing there. Nothing.


Q: What are your priorities?

A: Probably three things. One is to make the department more user-friendly. To bring back some of the credibility that we really can do some things right. The government is fully capable of delivering services. Even complex services.

The second is prevention, earlier investment. And I include in that the National Institutes of Health, immunization, a whole set of women's health issues, AIDS, sex education, reducing the number of kids that smoke, a whole slew of things.

The third is independence--that we have to rework our programs so what they do is increase people's responsibilities for themselves, for their own lives; empowering them to go out, get off the public dole and go to work.


Q: Which is the hardest of those?

A: The independence.


Q: Why?

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