As the leaking leakers leaked details of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos being bullied by Jeff Sessions and President Trump to drop her opposition to the administration’s rescission of the federal directive on transgender student access to bathrooms of their choice – it conjured the image of Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim” – perhaps as portrayed by Peter O’Toole – presented with the opportunity to redeem himself of a shameful past failing and to save others through an act of self-sacrifice.
DeVos had looked clueless during confirmation hearings, by demonstrating scant knowledge of public schools, no personal nexus to them and by improvising looney answers – as when asked whether guns should be permitted in schools her answer referred to grizzly bear sightings near an elementary school in Wapiti, Wyoming. DeVos’ actual confirmation made history, requiring the delay of Sessions’ own confirmation as Attorney General (so as a member of the Senate he could vote for her) and the first instance in U.S. history when a vice president voted to break a tie and confirm a presidential nomination subject to Senate consent.
No cabinet member in memory took office with such widespread criticism and lack of confidence as DeVos. And the contest for that ignominious status was Olympian this year, featuring nominees as ridiculed and unqualified as Dr. Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development and as committed to the emasculation or destruction of their agencies as Scott Pruitt, cabinet level Administrator of the EPA.
And then magically Secretary DeVos was immediately presented with the opportunity to redeem herself and even become a genuine heroine. All she needed to do was obey her publicly expressed conscience and higher power and refuse to ratify the change in policy protecting transgender students. The opportunity presented was similar to one in 2004 when Jim Comey and John Ashcroft refused to reauthorize an unconstitutional domestic surveillance program that the president’s counsel tried to have Ashcroft approve as he lay gravely ill in a hospital bed. Also similar, though not perhaps of the magnitude, to the moment in 1973 when Attorney General Elliott Richardson and Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than obey Richard Nixon’s demand that they fire Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox as he moved in for the kill.
DeVos’ second chance was so nearly perfect that it seemed less magical and more of divine design. The opportunity came so swiftly – to stand up to two boy bullies. Bullying is one of the major problems plaguing primary and secondary schools. Indeed, bullying, sometimes with extreme prejudicial consequences was one major reason the Obama Justice Department issued the directive on transgender student access to bathrooms of their choice. And unlike Lord Jim, DeVos didn’t have to die to redeem herself and help others. Sadly some among those “others” may die as a result of her failure of courage.