Over the weekend, the press published many stories about the new Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Most of them were like this story at the New York Daily News, phoned-in pack journalism that prints the narrative (i.e., the Va is, “an agency beset by treatment delays and struggling to deal with an influx of new veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” When the real workload is aging WWII, Korean and Vietnam-era vets). But they did at least get the guy’s name right: Robert A. McDonald.
An administration official said Obama would announce McDonald’s appointment Monday. If confirmed by the Senate, McDonald would succeed Eric Shinseki, the retired four-star general who resigned last month as the scope of the issues at veterans’ hospitals became apparent.
Nothing about Robert McDonald, a former head of Procter & Gamble, suggests he has any hope of turning around this particular bottom-seeking Titanic of an agency. After leaving the Army he was a career P&G employee for 33 years, with the last three in the top job. While he was there, the company performed well and grew slowly but steadily, so he’s probably not a bozo. That’s good news. But on the other hand, he’s never had a turn-around task. He’s got one now.
The President may have chosen him because he grew up in Chicago. He sure as hell didn’t choose him because McDonald is one of his political supporters, though. In the 2012 cycle, McDonald (he’s the Robert A. from Cincinnati, identified as working for P&G or retired) gave $10,000 to Mitt Romney, and thousands more to other Republican efforts.
In tapping McDonald for the post, Obama is signaling his desire to install a VA chief with broad management experience. McDonald also had military experience, graduating near the top of his class from West Point and serving as a captain in the Army, primarily in the 82nd Airborne Division.
McDonald was a member of the Class of ’75, and so his service was in the Carter-era Hollow Army. There has been a lot of reaction from a lot of folks already, but there are really only three questions anyone needs to ask about this:
- Will McDonald hold VA executives and managers accountable for their mis-, mal- and non-feasance that has neglected vets to the point that many have sickened and died? and,
- Will McDonald change the culture of the VA from one of self-service by bureaucrats to one of selfless service by servant supporters? and,
- Will McDonald shift the VA’s massive resources from unproductive DC-area bureaucracy out to the hospitals and clinics in the field, and provide some way for those vets not near a facility to be treated?
If you’ve been reading this blog (or if you’re a cynic), you can probably answer those questions correctly. Thing is, McDonald could be a hero, or he could be a bum like Shinseki and Gibson, and it just won’t matter. He can’t do any of those things. His hands are tied.
His hands are tied by Congress (yes, the selfsame Congress that will crucify him on C-SPAN the moment the next inevitable crisis hits or scandal is exposed). His hands are tied by his own army of counterproductive VA Lawyers. And his hands are tied by sweetheart employment contracts with pinky-ring union bosses. He could be the man of the greatest competence and best will in the entire world, and he’s still going in to a task where we have no problem already calling him a failure.
The rest of the press will catch up with us in due course. Sorry about that, Bob.
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.