Cavazos Has Kind Words for President In His Last Official Speech as Secretary

By Julie A. Miller — January 09, 1991 5 min read
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Lauro F. Cavazos spent his final morning as Secretary of Education--four days after he had been fired from President Bush’s Cabinet--delivering a college commencement speech that praised Mr. Bush’s education initiatives.

Mr. Cavazos spoke glowingly of the national education goals adopted by the Bush Administration and the National Governors’ Association and read a congratulatory letter from the President to the graduates of West Virginia State College.

The Dec. 15 speech also addressed cultural diversity and the importance of having “the courage of your convictions.”

He declined to comment publicly on his resignation or his tenure as Secretary.

“It’s been a great experience, and I have no regrets,” Mr. Cavazos said before the speech, adding: “I’ll let my record speak for itself.”

Mr. Cavazos said that he had not decided what he would do next, but that he may return to Texas Tech University as a professor. He had been poised to step down as president of the university when he was tapped for the federal post in 1988, and is on a leave of absence.

Sources in the Education Department and the White House said Mr. Cavazos was summoned to the White House on Dec. 11, where Chief of Staff John H. Sununu told him that he was to resign his post by the end of the month because the Administration needed a more dynamic spokesman on education issues.

The Secretary saw no reason to remain in the job under such circumstances, sources said, and left town that night. He made his resignation effective Dec. 15, deciding to keep his commitment to West Virginia State.

Education Department officials said Mr. Cavazos spoke with Mr. Bush the next morning and then informed them by telephone that he had resigned. His terse letter of resignation was read that day at a Cabinet meeting the Secretary did not attend, and the White House announced his departure publicly soon after.

Less than a week later, Mr. Bush named Lamar Alexander, a former governor and the current president of the University of Tennessee, to succeed him. (Related story on page 1.)

The White House released a letter from Mr. Bush accepting Mr. Cavazos’ resignation with “deep regret” and praising him for his “dedicated service.” At a news briefing, Marlin Fitzwater, the President’s press secretary, refused to comment on the circumstances of the Secretary’s departure, insisting that Mr. Bush “feels that Larry Cavazos has done an outstanding job.”

It became immediately apparent, however, that the Secretary had been fired, and no Administration sources have made any serious effort to assert otherwise. Neither has Mr. Cavazos, who has determinedly ducked the media.

Sources said Mr. Cavazos was surprised at the suddenness of his ouster, and some Washington commentators remarked on the lack of sensitivity with which it was handled.

In the education community, reaction to Mr. Cavazos’ departure was mostly low-key.

Similar to their comments when Mr. Cavazos was in office, some education officials praised the former Secretary for his consensus-building style and his sincerity.

But even those with a few kind words for him either went on to note that he had accomplished little or quickly switched gears to suggest an agenda for his successor.

Others stated more bluntly that he had been ineffective, a view that dominated media coverage of Mr. Cavazos’ tenure. (See Education Week, June 21, 1989.)

“We might as well not have had a secretary at all,” said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Some observers and Administration sources suggested that Mr. Cavazos had been undercut by a lack of support from the White House, specifically mentioning Mr. Sununu’s rumored antipathy toward him.

The sources also noted the difficulty of working for the self-proclaimed “education president” during a time when the White House played a leading role in setting education policy.

For example, Mr. Cavazos had little influence on the national education goals agreed on last year by the President and the nation’s governors. (See Education Week, March 14, 1990.)

Roger B. Porter, the President’s chief domestic-policy adviser, has led the Administration’s goals initiative, and sought at one time to appoint a White House education adviser who observers predicted would have further eroded the Secretary’s influence. (See Education Week, April 19, 1989.)

“Here we had a perfect gentleman who wanted to do very well but had no experience in Washington and probably no experience in politics, and that made it very difficult,” said Representative Bill Goodling, ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. “I would not believe he had much control over what was going on.”

Many Education Department staff members said in interviews that Mr. Cavazos was temperamentally unsuited to the high-visibility job.

“He’s not a forceful personality, and he was uncomfortable with strong ideas,” one official said. “It was enormously frustrating to us.’'

Several aides also said Mr. Cavazos’ extensive reliance on advice from his wife, Peggy, may have contributed to his downfall.

It was widely known that Mrs. Cavazos was a regular presence in the Secretary’s office and at policy meetings. Mr. Cavazos rarely went anywhere without her, and the Inspector General’s office was reportedly investigating their travel practices.

“She shielded him from people who could have helped him,” one aide said.

In his resignation letter, Mr. Cavazos said he was most proud of his efforts on behalf of “expanding choice in education, promoting the executive order on excellence in education for Hispanic Americans, and raising awareness of the growing diversity of America’s student population.”

Hispanic leaders generally credit Mr. Cavazos with helping persuade President Bush to sign that executive order, which created an advisory panel on Hispanic education.

However, while many observers contend that he was appointed by President Reagan primarily to woo Hispanic voters in the 1988 election, Mr. Cavazos often drew fire from that quarter.

In particular, he was criticized for suggesting that Hispanic parents are responsible for their children’s academic failure and stating that children who do not speak English are not ready to learn. (See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

Like his predecessor, William J. Bennett, Mr. Cavazos made a substantial number of public appearances. He spoke most often in praise of school choice, a favorite Bush Administration theme, and of the need for every American to help ensure that “each child is educated to his or her fullest potential.”

But he could not match Mr. Bennett’s ability to generate public debate and media coverage, and many observers criticized Mr. Cavazos for lacking a coherent, well-defined agenda.

The achievement for which Mr. Cavazos was most widely praised was filling the top posts in the Education Department with people who are generally considered to be highly qualified. (See Education Week, April 25, 1990.)

One official highly regarded in the education community, Deputy Secretary Ted Sanders, is serving as acting Secretary.


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