On its face there is nothing especially noteworthy about President Trump's appointment of Ronny Jackson as the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs except for the fact that the former White House physician has an extremely cool-sounding name. He is not, like Ben Carson at HUD, someone who knows absolutely nothing about his new job or, like Scott Pruitt at the EPA, someone who seems dead set on sabotaging its mission from his bedroom at the home of a lobbyist.
It's hilariously obvious why Jackson got the job. Last year he made some incredibly dorky jokes about the president's health on television. When he claimed that, on the basis of his most recent checks-up, it was clear that Trump must have "incredible genes" and that there was a good chance he would live to be at least 200 because "that's just the way God made him," every living American with the exception of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue understood that this was just throwaway banter from a public servant who is not used to having to take questions from the press.
For Trump, though, it must have been a revelation. Here was a guy you could count on to be tough and smart and funny, a sharp guy who could handle the media and who really knew his stuff. No wonder he's an admiral or a general or something plus a doctor. Sooner or later a job was going to open up for him if he wanted it. It's really not that complicated. If you or I appeared on Fox and Friends tomorrow and said that Trump's golf swing was looking terrific, we would probably find ourselves getting appointed ambassador to the Seychelles or Martinique or secretary of the National Endowment for the Humanities sometime next spring.
Apart from his seeming inability to maintain concrete positions on any issue of political import, from Social Security to immigration to the war in Afghanistan, this was always the biggest problem with Trump's presidency. Even by the standards of politicians, for whom being pandered to by underlings is the whole point of the job, he is unusually susceptible to flattery. People who tell him what he wants to hear — "The wall is going to be so big and effective and see-through," "The health care will be terrific, just terrific," "Your skin looks great" — will flourish, even if none of them agree about anything and their advice is totally at odds with something the president campaigned on in 2016. He is also obsessed with television, which seems to be more real for this veteran of the medium than, well, reality.
The fact that Jackson has been nominated by the president for cartoonishly self-involved reasons doesn't mean he is going to do a bad job at the VA. Jackson is by all accounts a good doctor and a decent man. When he was mocked by Saturday Night Live for his press conference, he was defended by former colleagues in the Obama administration. "There is no one better than Ronny. No one. He is a saint and patriot," said Alyssa Mastromonaco, one of Obama's deputy chiefs of staff.
But there is also no reason to expect that he will be successful. If he fails it might not even be his fault. So right now he seems like a sensible competent adult professional? Yawn. Everyone said the same things about John Kelly, who now spends his days pretending that domestic violence is no big deal and firing cabinet secretaries while they are on the toilet. Even Anthony Scaramucci was just a goofball finance-bro before joining this White House, an experience that seems to have transformed him into a raving sociopath in the space of roughly the amount of time it takes most new hires to remember where their desks are. Moreover the spell seems to have broken almost immediately upon his resignation. Few if any employees of the Scaramucci Post have been threatened with beheading thus far.
No one seems to understand why this happens, least of all Jackson's outgoing predecessor, David Shulkin. In an op-ed published by The New York Times only hours after Trump announced his firing, Shulkin complained that "the environment in Washington has turned so toxic, chaotic, disrespectful, and subversive that it became impossible for me to accomplish the important work that our veterans need and deserve." There has never been a time when those adjectives could not have been usefully applied to our nation's capital and its inhabitants. But there is something different going on now, a combination of relentless and omnidirectional media hostility and inherent personal instability and oafish indifference to the actual business of governing that probably does make working for the president hell no matter who you are — even saints and patriots.
It should be added that none of this speculation concerning the ups and downs of the venal functionaries of the current presidential administration should distract us from the fact that the VA is in need of serious reform. If Jackson is somehow able to clean the stables there, he will deserve the admiration of every American.