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Yet another Republican joins the Obama fold

By A. James Memmott

June 5, 2009 at 8:27am

President Barack Obama has picked another Republican to serve in his Democratic administration.

The White House announced Wednesday that the president would nominate Jim Leach, a former Iowa congressman, to serve as chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities.

In naming Leach, Obama returned a favor, as Leach, once a protege of Donald Rumsfeld and colleague of Dick Cheney, had supported him in the presidential race.

The announcement came a day after the president selected Rep. John M. McHugh, a Republican from northern New York state, to serve as secretary of the Navy.

Earlier, Obama had nominated Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a Republican, to be ambassador to China. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are also Republicans.

Leach, 66, was one of the leading Republican moderates in the House for 30 years before his defeat by 6,000 votes in 2006.

After that, he served as interim director of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

He is now a visiting professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Leach broke ranks with the Republic Party last year when he endorsed Obama and later spoke on his behalf at the Democratic National Convention.

“Seldom has an emerging leader so matched the needs of the moment,” Leach told the delegates on Aug. 25.

This was not the first time Leach bucked the Republican leadership.

In 1973, he resigned from the Foreign Service in protest of President Richard Nixon’s firing of his attorney general and the independent counsel investigating the Watergate break-in and its aftermath.

A graduate of Princeton, Leach began his government career in 1965 as an aide to then Rep. Donald H. Rumsfeld, the future secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration.

After his time in the Foreign Service, Leach worked for Rumsfeld again at the Office of Economic Opportunity, Rumsfeld having left Congress in 1969 to lead that agency.

Dick Cheney, the future vice president, was also an aide to Rumsfeld at that time. Later, Leach and Cheney served together in Congress.

In Congress, Leach had special expertise and influence on economic matters, serving as the chairman of the House Banking and Financial Services Committee from 1995 to 2001.

In 1999, Leach was co-sponsor of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley act along with then Republican representatives Phil Gramm and Thomas J. Bliley.

The legislation repealed part of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 and made it possible for commercial and investment banks to merge.

Obama singled out the Gramm-Leach-Bliley legislation for attack during the presidential campaign, saying it led to loose regulation of the financial services industry and the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

However, Obama focused his rhetoric on Gramm, who was an economic adviser to Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate.

If approved by the Senate, Leach will become the ninth chair of NEH, an agency that funds research, education and programs in the humanities.

Chairs serve four-year terms. Past chairs include William J. Bennett, who was also the Secretary of Education in Ronald Reagan’s administration and Lynne V. Cheney, who is married to Dick Cheney.

In January, Obama appointed Carole M. Watson, a veteran NEH administrator, to serve as acting NEH chair until a permanent leader takes over.

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