President Bush filled his cabinet and senior White House staff with middle-aged men, many of whom were trusted friends. The only women among his original high-level appointments were Secretary of Labor Elizabeth H. Dole, wife of Senator Dole, and Special Trade Representative Carla A. Hills. Most of the appointees had previous experience in the Reagan or Nixon and Ford administrations. His closest political friend and campaign manager in 1980 and 1988, James A. Baker III, became secretary of state. Although Baker had relatively little experience with foreign affairs, he had been chief of staff for President Reagan (1981–1985) and secretary of the treasury (1985–1988). Baker, a lawyer, had a reputation for negotiating skills and excellent political judgment. As secretary of state he was criticized for ignoring the career foreign service professionals, but he worked closely and effectively with his most important client, the president, especially on relations with the Soviet Union. In August 1992 Baker left the State Department to become Bush's chief of staff in an effort to save the faltering campaign for reelection. Lawrence S. Eagleburger, an experienced foreign policy professional, served as secretary of state for the closing months of the administration.
The only cabinet choice by the president not to be confirmed by the Senate was former Texas senator John G. Tower to be secretary of defense. Tower was rejected because of his reputation for drinking to excess and inappropriate behavior with women. The president's second choice for secretary of defense, former congressman Richard B. ("Dick") Cheney of Wyoming, was easily confirmed. Cheney was a believer in a strong military establishment, doubted that the Cold War was really over, and questioned the supposedly peaceful transformation of the Soviet Union. He was tough, laconic, somewhat humorless, and a strong administrator. Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas F. Brady, a personal friend of Bush's, was a holdover from the Reagan cabinet who did not require reconfirmation. Attorney General Richard ("Dick") Thornburgh, former governor of Pennsylvania, was another holdover from the Reagan cabinet, having been appointed with Bush's approval just before the 1988 election.
Bush inherited Reagan's final director of the CIA, William H. Webster, a former federal judge and director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). When Webster retired in 1991 Bush nominated Robert M. Gates, once deputy to the controversial Reagan-era CIA director William J. ("Bill") Casey. In 1987 Gates had been blocked from succeeding Casey because of his connections with the Iran-Contra affair. In 1991 he still faced considerable opposition but not enough to prevent confirmation. Gates was another Cold War hardliner who doubted that the Soviet Union could be trusted.
President Bush's most important military nomination was that of General Colin L. Powell to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). In October 1989 Powell became the youngest officer and the first African American to hold the nation's highest professional military position, as well as the first chairman to have entered the military from the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). Powell was the first JCS chairman to operate for his full term under new legislation (the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986) giving him the power to advise the president directly and not merely pass on a consensus of the heads of the military services. Powell, a Vietnam combat veteran, was an experienced Washington military insider with previous tours in the White House and Defense Department. He had served in 1988 as Ronald Reagan's last national security adviser, bringing needed order to the National Security Council staff system in the wake of the Iran-Contra debacle.
Powell would be a central player in every foreign policy question involving the actual or potential use of force. In common with most officers of his generation he had been scarred by the experience of the Vietnam War and condemned the leadership of that time for sending Americans to die for unclear objectives and without public support. Powell believed, and so advised Bush, that the nation should use military force only when the objectives were clear, the means fully sufficient, and Congress and the people understood and supported the cause. Sometimes these ideas were called the Powell doctrine. Powell in 1989 stood apart from most high military officers in believing that the Soviet threat was gone. "The Soviet system is bankrupt, and Gorbachev is the trustee.. . . Our bear is now benign," he said.
Two other important Bush appointments were William K. Reilly as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and William J. Bennett as director of the National Drug Control Policy. Reilly, a professional environmentalist, worked for effective environmental regulation but often clashed with conservatives in the administration. Bennett, an articulate writer and speaker, garnered considerable press attention for the war on drugs and for himself.
In the modern presidency the senior staff in the White House have more power and influence than most cabinet officers. They do not require approval by the Senate, and they have direct, daily access to the president. In the Bush administration four men were in this category. John H. Sununu, former conservative governor of New Hampshire, became chief of staff and principal domestic adviser. Sununu was sharp-tongued, combative, and often rude—the opposite in manner of Bush. Sununu's job was to manage domestic political affairs, control access to the president, and say no to people asking unacceptable favors of President Bush. Sununu was the president's pit bull. He resigned in December 1991 after being criticized for using government airplanes for personal travel. He was replaced by the less colorful Samuel K. Skinner for eight months and then by James Baker for the final months of the administration.
Brent Scowcroft, a retired Air Force lieutenant general with a Ph.D. in international relations and fluency in Russian, became the national security adviser, the same post he had held under President Ford. Scowcroft, a skeptic about the Soviet Union, was fond of saying that a potential adversary should be treated on the basis of his capabilities rather than on his intentions, since intentions could change. Unlike National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with Nixon or Zbigniew Brzezinski with Carter, Scowcroft shunned publicity and did not set himself up as a rival to the secretary of state.
Two key domestic policy aides were Richard G. Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel. Darman, who had previously held high positions in the Commerce and Treasury Departments, was the administration's financial watchdog. At first he vigorously defended Bush's promise of no new taxes. But in 1990 he advocated a compromise with Congress—some new taxes in return for budget cuts. He then became the favorite target of criticism from low-tax conservatives. Gray had worked for Vice President Bush in the commission on deregulation. As the president's chief lawyer he crafted strategy for limiting congressional power.
One of a president's most important constitutional and political responsibilities is to appoint judges for the federal courts and justices for the Supreme Court, subject to confirmation by the Senate. During his four years President Bush filled one quarter of the judgeships in the lower courts and two positions on the Supreme Court. He continued Reagan's policy of naming men and women who believe that the powers granted to government under the Constitution are limited and that previous court decisions had granted excessive rights to individuals, especially in criminal proceedings. Bush appointed a record number of women to the federal courts, but gave few appointments to blacks and Hispanics.
During the Bush presidency two liberal justices of the Supreme Court retired: William J. Brennan, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall. To replace Brennan, the president in 1990 nominated a reclusive judicial intellectual, David H. Souter of New Hampshire. Souter refused to indicate in advance how he would decide on specific issues such as a woman's right to an abortion. He was easily confirmed, and once on the bench proved to be less conservative than the president may have expected.
The nomination in 1991 to replace Marshall, hero of the civil rights movement and the first African American to serve on the Court, became a political firestorm. Clarence Thomas, a young federal judge of little experience, was also black. He held the ultraconservative view that the Constitution provided scant authority for federal legislation designed to bring about social change. Political liberals and moderates had legitimate reason to vote against Thomas' confirmation on the basis of his judicial philosophy. But the televised hearings on the nomination before the Senate Judiciary Committee were quickly converted into a seminar on sexual harassment. Anita Hill, a black law professor who had worked for Thomas in two federal agencies, accused him of making improper sexual advances toward her. Thomas denied the charges and described himself as the target of a political lynch mob. The final vote of 52–48 in favor of confirmation reflected divisions in the Senate and the country over which person was telling the truth—Hill or Thomas.