By Jay Kirell
In the 25-year history of the cabinet-level position of Secretary of Veterans Affairs, there have been seven men tasked with overseeing the VA.
If you can recall the six men to hold the job before current VA secretary Eric Shinseki, good job, because you’re either Ken Jennings or you happened to be one of those six guys.
It’s not exactly a glamorous position, being 17th in the line of succession and all.
Shinseki, currently embroiled in the middle of the biggest controversy to hit the Department of Veterans Affairs since the Walter Reed neglect scandal in 2004, has faced a steady drumbeat of criticism from elected officials, veterans and Veteran Service Organizations for weeks. Many have called for his resignation, including a recent slow trickle of Democrats.
Before any decision is made, however, perhaps we should look back at the history of the men who have held Shinseki’s position and how their tenure went. Is it possible that Shinseki is doing no better or worse than his prior appointees? If that’s the case, what does it say about prior VA Secretaries and their ability to actually reform and improve the department?
Here are the six prior appointees, not counting the few “acting” Secretaries who were never confirmed by the Senate:
Eric Derwinski (1989-1992)
The very first Cabinet-level Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Derwinski was appointed by George H.W. Bush after a stint as Administrator of Veterans Affairs for the Veterans Administration (the precursor to the modern-day VA). Derwinski’s three-year run as Secretary was notable for his efforts to increase the VA budget (from $32 billion to $34 billion), as well as his acrimonious relationship with various veterans organizations. He was replaced as Secretary a few months before the 1992 election after veterans groups complained loudly to then-President Bush about comments Derwinski made about potentially opening up VA clinics to non-veterans. “Derwinski seemed to almost set out to break the backs of veterans groups,” Larry W. Rivers, then-executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told the New York Times.
Jesse Brown (1993-1997)
The second official Secretary of Veterans Affairs was also the first African American to hold that position. Brown’s tenure was less controversial than his predecessor, possibly due to his background as the former executive director for one of the largest Veterans Service Organizations – Disabled American Veterans (DAV). A former Marine, Brown expanded the services offered to female and homeless veterans, as well as vets fallen ill due to chemical exposure in Vietnam and Iraq. He was also a major contributor to the American Veterans Disabled For Life Memorial in Washington D.C. The Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago is named after him.
Togo D. West Jr. (1998-2000)
The third man to hold the position, West was the Secretary of the Army prior to his appointment by Bill Clinton halfway into his second term. In his prior position as Army Secretary he helped institute stricter regulations on sexual harassment, though his tenure was also marked by allegations (from conservatives) that West gave favorable burial plots at Arlington National Cemetery to major Democratic donors. West lasted just two years as head of the VA, offering his resignation just months before the 2000 election amidst accusations of mismanagement.
Anthony Principi (2001-2005)
Principi was the deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs under George H.W. Bush before being named to the top spot by his son, George W. Bush. Principi was confirmed 100-0 by the Senate, and upon his appointment, became the fourth Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Principi’s time as Secretary was notable for drawing criticism from vets for suspending health care enrollments for some veterans and for approving plans to shut down aging and underused VA hospitals. He was also praised, however, for enabling the VA to set aside approximately $15 million a year for research into Gulf War Syndrome.
Jim Nicholson (2005-2007)
A longtime player in Republican party politics, Nicholson was the national chairman for the GOP from 1997 to 2000. Prior to his appointment to head the VA, Nicholson was US ambassador to the Vatican. A decorated Vietnam veteran, Nicholson headed Cabinet-level task force that George W. Bush set up in response to the Walter Reed scandal. Appointed just two years after the start of the Iraq war, one of Nicholson’s first challenges was dealing with a $1 billion shortfall at the VA, which required the Bush administration to appeal to Congress for emergency spending, drawing criticism from Democrats that the VA wasn’t set up to handle the influx of veterans coming home from the war. He also faced criticism in Congress after it was revealed in May 2006 that VA computer files with personal data, including Social Security numbers for over 25 million veterans went missing.
James Peake (2007-2009)
The last VA Secretary prior to the current appointee, Peake finished up George W. Bush’s second term after a 38-year career in the Army which included a stint as Army Surgeon General. Peake was the first physician to hold the position. At the end of the Bush Administration, the vets organization Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) blasted Peake’s handling of the VA over a disability claim scandal which saw hundreds of veterans’ claim records shredded. VVA also took Peake to task over comments he made regarding the high suicide rate among veterans, saying that veterans suicides are the result of “the same kinds of issues that have to do with suicides in the general population. It is issues of failed relationships, senses of hopelessness, transitions in life, that are the root cause…. We’re not making a direct correlation with combat.” The VVA responded to Peake’s comments, saying: “Secretary Peake is completely out of touch with what has happened to the men and women who serve our nation. They are looking for help from the very organization that devalues their service.”
As you can see, it’s a rather mixed bag, to put it kindly. The history of the position of VA Secretary is one marred by short tenures, scandal and criticism from pundits and veterans organizations.
In other words, it’s a position few want, fewer get, and even fewer manage to keep for longer than one congressional term.