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Shinseki Vows To Overhaul VA

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. On Capitol Hill today, General Eric Shinseki aced his job interview for a cabinet post in the Obama administration. Shinseki is up for the top job at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports, he appears to be a shoe-in.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: You didn't have to sit through much of today's hearing before you got the distinct sense that Eric Shinseki enjoys something close to hero status on Capitol Hill. One after another, senators from both parties were falling over themselves to praise him.

Senator RICHARD BURR (Republican, North Carolina): You have the experience. You have the leadership skills. You have the determination needed to serve.

Senator KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (Republican, Texas): I want to tell you that I admire and respect you as much as anyone I have ever known in the armed services.

Senator JOHN TESTER (Democrat, Montana): In my perspective, your reputation is impeccable and it's …

KELLY: That's Democrat John Tester and before him Republicans, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Richard Burr. Senators were so determined to sing General Shinseki's praises that it was a full hour and fifteen minutes into his own hearing before he got the chance to speak.

General ERIC SHINSEKI (Appointee, Secretary of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Barack Obama Administration): Thank you very much Mr. Chairman - Chairman Akaka, Senator Burr and distinguished members of this committee on Veterans Affairs. I am deeply honored by ..

KELLY: Shinseki is a retired four-star general and the first Asian-American head of the Army. But he's famous as the general who questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's strategy on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003. Today, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, remembered the moment as pivotal.

Senator JAY ROCKFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): The effect that that had on the American people was magical.

KELLY: But Rumsfeld and his deputies found it less than magical, they rebuked him. And Shinseki quietly retired from the Army a few months later. Since then, he's mostly kept his own counsel, giving few speeches or interviews, never stepping forward to say, I told you so, and it was the same today. The general never mentioned the episode with Rumsfeld. He gave no clues as to whether he feels vindicated by the nod to return to public life.

Instead, he appeared entirely focused on the matter at hand, how to fix the VA. It is a big job. Veteran Affairs is the second largest bureaucracy in the government, only Defense is bigger. The VA is plagued by everything from a rising suicide rate among vets to a backlog in disability claims. General Shinseki.

General SHINSEKI: There is, in my opinion, no reason why a veteran submits a claim and then takes a number and waits for six months. We need to do something about this.

KELLY: Democrat Patty Murray agreed. She noted that the VA has developed a reputation for trying to cover-up problems. There was, for example, the VA's mental health director who got caught in a private email trying to hide from the public the alarming increase in suicide attempts. Today, Senator Murray pressed Shinseki, how would he go about transforming a bureaucracy that, as she put it, has been more focused on avoiding public relations disasters than on actually helping vets.

Senator PATTY MURRAY (Democrat, Washington): How do you change that culture and what will we see under your administration?

General SHINSEKI: Senator, good question, and I do think it's about leadership.

KELLY: Leadership was a recurring theme in General Shinseki's testimony today, more so than specific solutions. He said if he could deliver one message to his future colleagues at Veterans Affairs, it would be this...

General SHINSEKI: Treat our veterans with respect and dignity. They're not here begging for a hand-out. They are truly our clients. They don't have anywhere or else to shop.

KELLY: Gen. Shinseki may himself have the chance to act on that advice in the very near future. Senator Daniel Akaka, who chaired today's hearing, said he anticipates the general will be confirmed next Tuesday, the same day Barack Obama is sworn in as president. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.