Fifteen or so years ago, as a new Russia emerged for the wreckage of the old Soviet Union, the American news media used to report of this or that Russian political figure that he "was a former Communist." It was always delivered ominously, in somber tones meant to chill, and to suggest that really the old evil empire crowd had not gone away.
Of course, most in the media failed to recognize or acknowledge that running a country the size and complexity of Russia requires people with some level of experience. In the early 1990s the only people in Russia with that experience were, ipso facto, former Communists. In fact, virtually everyone, except those in the gulag, was a former Communist.
I've been remembering that episode of obtuseness as I've listened to certain of the chatter that has greeted President Obama's (and let's just call him president shall we? He is certainly carrying out the job with more energy than the guy still eating dinner in the White House) cabinet picks: Wait! These people have connections to the Clinton Administration! Obama is abandoning his promise of change because he's bringing to the White House people who already know their way around!
The charge is absurd on its face, and plenty of people have pointed that out. Americans may say they want people "outside the Beltway" but those people tend not to be very effective once they get to DC. Jimmy Carter was elected because a nation hung-over from Watergate wanted someone with no Washington connections. Carter didn't do so well translating that outsider status into effective governing.
But rather than rehearse the obvious need for experienced people, especially at a moment of crisis, let me offer another way to measure change: Compare these nominations with George Bush's eight years ago.
Bush's top picks revealed the extent to which we were all trapped inside the Bush Family Dysfunctional Thanksgiving Dinner. Colin Powell and Condi Rice were selected precisely because of their connections to dad and were designed to bring back dad's friends to the White House. The picks which proved most consequential - Rumsfeld and Cheney - took us even further back, all the way to the Ford Administration, where Cheney helped kill Ford's energy plan among other things.
But perhaps the nomination which best demonstrated just how inept this administration would prove to be was John Ashcroft. You will recall that Ashcroft got the job of running the Justice Department because he lost his Senate seat in the 2000 election. To a dead man. The reward for failing to beat the deceased Mel Carnahan was the job of Attorney General. It was the first example of what became all too common: for Bush, our MBA president, no failure is so great that it doesn't deserve a promotion. (And at the very end of his administration he continues to operate in exactly the same way, giving bailout money to the bank executives who got us in this mess in the first place).
Ashcroft's nomination told us all we needed to know about the coming administration - its contempt for brains, for integrity, for competence, its true-believing zealotry. By comparison, Obama's selections represent an dramatic and welcome change indeed.