Secretary Hazel O'Leary: Bright, Charming, Tough

By Haywood, Richette L. | Ebony, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Secretary Hazel O'Leary: Bright, Charming, Tough

Haywood, Richette L., Ebony

THIRTY seconds. Half a minute. That's all the time Hazel O'Leary, the only Black woman in the president's cabinet, had to consider the hard-hitting question that a CNN journalist fired at her. As the cameras rolled, the nation awaited the answer to the question that in all likelihood will define her administration: Should the United States government compensate the hundreds of unwitting victims it deliberately exposed to plutonium and other radioactive substances during the Cold War?

And 30 seconds was all the time U.S. Secretary of Energy O'Leary needed to formulate her controversial --yet understandable--answer: Yes.

And with that, pandemonium broke out.

On the surface, the answer appeared a reasonable response. After all, the agency's release of the once highly classified information confirming the U.S. government's involvement in radioactive experimentation on its citizens had sent shock waves throughout the nation.

But political correctness aside, O'Leary's 30-second soundbite began a bureaucratic firestorm that shook the very foundation of the Department of Energy. The $18 billion federal agency, charged with, among other things, researching and developing energy technology as well as creating a safe facility for nuclear waste, was the embodiment of supersecrecy.

But that was before O'Leary.

President Bill Clinton's appointment of this independent-thinking Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Fisk University meant a serious change in the department's culture of secrecy.

"The whole issue wasn't so much on the openness," she says flatly. "It was on the compensation."

Compensation which the Virginiaborn former New Jersey assistant prosecutor says the victims of the radiation experiments are due. "I'm a servant of the people," she says point blank. "And if people have been hurt, shouldn't we try to make them whole? It was a no brainer for me."

But not for many of O'Leary's detractors. For them, her remarks had gone too far. It was obvious to them she had crossed the line. She was taking the agency away from its traditional priority--nuclear weapons production and development, which had meant victory in WW II--and moving it into the post-Cold War era of accountability and decency.

President Clinton publicly backed her position, recalls O'Leary. He also called her personally, she remembers, "to say, you've done a beautiful job. I like everything that you did."

The pundits were quieted. At least for the moment. But there were other problems awaiting O'Leary, other controversial issues to bring to the table, and more fires for her to put out. But that was okay, too, because she had a plan.

The plan: deal with everything head-on...and look good doing it.

In other words, the first Black and the first woman to become U.S. secretary of energy was not going to be browbeaten into meekness. She was too old to go down like that. "I'm not a child. I'm 57 years old," she says candidly. "I'm literally at the end of my career. I'm not trying to platform off this job. Therefore, I want to leave it the way that I entered it--having firm convictions."

To that end, it's fair to say that O'Leary, while controversial, is still perceived by many as being highly effective. With more than two decades of experience in the energy industry, she is regarded among her colleagues as approachable, fair and skilled at consensus building and at inspiring great loyalty. Her presence alone has attracted some of the most respected professionals in the energy industry to the agency.

Joseph Vivona concurred two months ago during his swearing-in as the Department of Energy's chief financial officer. "People fail to recognize why people do come to the Department of Energy," said Vivona. "It's her."

She knows that being in the mix sometimes means mixing it up. Making the hard calls. "The decisions are tough and most of what we do profoundly impacts people's lives," says O'Leary, explaining the reason for her intensity. …

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