• U.S.

THE TRANSITION: Surprises and Sparks on the Hill

3 minute read

As their Senate hearings began, all of Jimmy Carter’s nominees for the Cabinet seemed certain to receive routine confirmation, but the questions drew comments from the candidates that were anything but commonplace—and touched off an explosion or two.

Secretary of State-designate Cyrus Vance admitted that U.S. involvement in Viet Nam had been “a mistake” and that he, as the Pentagon’s No. 2 official in the mid-’60s, had made “more than my share of mistakes.” Incoming Labor Secretary F. Ray Marshall revealed that he had urged an economic stimulus package with a much greater emphasis on Government support of jobs than the plan approved by Carter. Fiery Patricia Harris, HUD nominee, rebuked Senator William Proxmire for challenging her qualifications to represent the poor who need housing help. “I am a black woman,” she said, “the daughter of a dining-car waiter. While there may be others who forget what it meant to be excluded from the dining rooms of this very building, Senator, I shall never forget.”

Tough Luck. Joseph Califano, the prospective HEW Secretary, reaffirmed his opposition to using federal funds to pay for any woman’s abortion. “What you’re saying is that if she is poor and can’t afford a private abortion, then it’s just tough luck, isn’t it?” asked Oregon Republican Bob Packwood.

Whether a woman is “rich or poor,” Califano insisted, “abortion is wrong and federal funds should not be used for providing abortions.” Califano said, however, that he would carry out laws under which about 300,000 abortions a year are financed by the Medicaid program.

The only serious controversy revolved around the nomination of Carter’s fellow Georgian and longtime friend, Federal Judge Griffin Bell, to be Attorney General. The N.A.A.C.P., the Congressional Black Caucus and some liberal Democrats all assailed Bell. Joseph Rauh, vice chairman of Americans for Democratic Action, charged that Bell had given “aid and comfort to segregationists” while an Atlanta attorney, chief of staff to Georgia’s segregationist Governor Ernest Vandiver and a member of the federal bench. Black Caucus Chairman Parren Mitchell accused Bell of being “the mastermind of Georgia’s massive resistance” to school desegregation when he advised Vandiver from 1959 to 1961.

Bell and his defenders insisted that he had, in fact, been a “moderate” on integration matters in the years when such a role was unpopular in the South. His aim in advising Vandiver, he said, was to keep the public schools open, rather than abandoned (“Open on a segregated basis,” scoffed the N.A.A.C.P.’S Clarence Mitchell). Bell won a resounding endorsement as being professionally qualified from former Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski. Some Southern blacks also came to his defense.

Bell admitted he had made some mistakes as a judge. But times have changed, he said, “and we do have redemption in this country.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com