Washington--John R. Silber, president of Boston University, and William J. Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, appear to have emerged as the leading contenders to become the next secretary of education.
According to a staff member of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, the Congressional committee that must clear the President’s nominee for the post before sending it to the Senate for confirmation, the White House recently contacted Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah and chairman of the committee, to tell him that Mr. Silber and Mr. Bennett were under serious consideration for the education post.
Mr. Silber, who is reportedly the first choice of the director of the White House personnel office, John C. Herrington, met with Edwin Meese III, counselor to the President, in Washington about 10 days ago, a spokesman for Mr. Silber said. Mr. Bennett is said to be a personal friend of Mr. Meese.
Both Mr. Silber and Mr. Bennett, who worked as an assistant to Mr. Silber at Boston University in the 1970’s, also met recently with Coalitions for America, an umbrella group of conservative organizations.
The hour-long, off-the-record discussions held in Washington the week before last were approved by the White House, which supplied the names of the candidates to the organization, those familiar with the discussions said.
“We told the candidates there would be no problem” if they met with the group, Becky Norton Dunlop, deputy assistant to the President for presidential personnel, told The Washington Post.
A member of the Labor and Human Resources committee staff who attended the meetings said there was “nothing Machiavellian” about them. “The Administration is conservative, so why wouldn’t it want people who generally support its policies to have a chance to talk to those being considered for positions,” he said.
Another aide to a Republican Senator on the same committee said, however, “It’s extraordinary and a little out of place for a group of conservatives to pre-screen candidates for a White House appointment. Confirmation is a function of the Senate, not special-interest groups.”
Secretary Bell, reached in Salt Lake City by a reporter from United Press International, said he was “amazed” that the conservative group was given permission by the White House to interview the two candidates.
“Conservatives should have some input,” he said, “but I hope and expect they won’t be the only ones to have an input.”
The action by Coalitions for America, which is headed by the outspoken conservative Paul Weyrich, reflected what some Administration officials said last week is a keen interest in the social-issues agenda of the Reagan White House as it enters its second term.
“The appointment has the chance of taking on symbolism that goes way beyond education,” said one Administration official. “There are a lot of conservatives who look at this appointment as an opportunity for the White House to send a signal. They are very uptight about whether this will be a consensus Presidency instead of one that pushes conservative causes.”
One Education Department official with ties to the White House said the switchboard there is receiving many phone calls from conservatives in support of Mr. Silber and Mr. Bennett.
(The Washington Post last week reported a White House official as saying that a renewed effort to abolish the U.S. Department of Education is among a range of possible items for the Reagan Administration’s second-term agenda that are being studied under the direction of Mr. Meese.)
Nonetheless, sources said the list of potential candidates for Secretary Bell’s replacement was growing last week. They attribute this to influential Republicans who have urged the White House to consider a number of other candidates. The White House is doing so, the sources say, “out of political courtesy.”
Among those whose names have surfaced are Albert H. Quie, a former Congressman and former governor of Minnesota, Linda Chavez, staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a former assistant to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Senator Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, has reportedly asked that Manuel J. Justiz, director of the National Institute of Education, be considered. Senator Mack Mattingly, Republican of Georgia, is said to have submitted the name of Fred Davison, president of the University of Georgia, for review.
The Washington Times, a paper considered to have close ties to the Reagan Administration, reported recently that Michael K. Deaver, deputy chief of staff and assistant to the President, has suggested within the White House that Senator Charles H. Percy of Illinois be considered as Secretary Bell’s replacement. Senator Percy, a Republican, recently lost his Senate seat to Representative Paul Simon.
When asked recently by the White House for his opinion on the appointment, Senator Hatch reportedly expressed his support for Mr. Bennett and Donald J. Devine, di-rector of the Office of Personnel Management and a reported friend of the Senator. Mr. Devine has been named by a number of other sources as a possible replacement for Secretary Bell.
It was not clear last week whether the White House had set a deadline for its selection of a replacement for Secretary Bell, who announced earlier this month that he planned to leave his post on Dec. 31 and return to Utah.
Administration officials did say that they expected any names of potential replacements for Mr. Bell to be “signed off on” by each of the President’s three top advisors--Mr. Deaver, Mr. Meese, and James A. Baker 3rd, chief of staff and assistant to the President--before they are submitted to Mr. Reagan.
Mr. Silber and Mr. Bennett declined last week to comment on the developments of the past two weeks.
A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 1984 edition of Education Week as Silber, Bennett: Lead Contenders For Bell’s Post