Elizabeth Dole has decided to resign her post as labor secretary and take a position as president of the American Red Cross, administrationofficials said Tuesday night. Dole reportedly told President Bush on Oct. 10 that she was seriously considering leaving the Cabinet, when she flew with him on Air Force One down to her home state of North Carolina for a fund-raising breakfast for Sen. Jesse Helms.
She talked to the president again on the telephone early this week, to tell him that she had definitely decided to take the job at the Red Cross and to discuss the timing of her departure.
She is to meet with Bush at the White House today, then issue a formal statement.
She reportedly has confided to friends that the job was frustrating because it did not provide enough political recognition and scope for program initiatives.
For instance, she complained that John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, took the central role in negotiations with Capitol Hill on an increase in the minimum wage, traditionally a Labor Department sphere of influence.
For her part, Dole has long expressed an interest in charitable work and told Bush when she first took the Cabinet post that she had been thinking of starting a campaign of her own to raise money for charity.
"She felt it was time to move on and tackle something new and different," a Dole associate said.
Dole, who will depart around Thanksgiving, is the first member of the Bush Cabinet to leave. She is the only woman in the Cabinet of 14 department heads, although Trade Representative Carla Hills holds Cabinet rank.
The White House has no replacement for Dole and has just begun drawing up a list of names for Bush's consideration.
Although there has been persistent speculation in recent weeks that there would be a major mid-term Cabinet reshuffling, officials said they did not expect Dole's departure to set off an immediate series of shifts. "It will probably be one out, one in, as far as the Labor job," one White House official said.
The labor secretary's decision was unexpected and closely held, catching many people in the administration and Red Cross by surprise Tuesday.
The president was pleased with her performance, Bush advisers said, and her efforts to bridge Republican ranks with organized labor were viewed as somewhat successful, coming after the often sour relationship between labor and the White House in the Reagan administration.
Some White House officials expressed dismay at Dole's timing, worrying that coming two weeks before the election, it might add to the recent impression of disarray in the administration created by its confused handling of the budget issue.
But administration officials close to the labor secretary said that her timing was dictated by the meeting this weekend in Washington of the American Red Cross board of directors, which is expected to ratify her selection Saturday.
Officials of the service organization approached the labor secretary more than a year ago, officials close to Dole said, and recently began pursuing her again when they did not find another candidate to their liking.
The top Red Cross job has been open for more than a year. The last person who held the job, Richard Schubert, made about $185,000 a year, Red Cross official Barbara Lohman said. Cabinet secretaries earn $98,400.
Dole, 54, a Harvard-trained lawyer with a master's degree in education, has been in the federal government for 25 years and worked under six presidents, starting with Lyndon B. Johnson.
She was one of the few women in the top tier of Ronald Reagan's administration as well, serving as his transportation secretary from 1983 to 1987.
She and her husband, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the Senate minority leader, are one of Washington's most prominent political couples.
Bush announced his appointment of Dole as labor secretary on Christmas Eve 1988, early in the formation of his administration.
Many in Washington felt that Bush wanted her in his Cabinet not only for her expertise and visibility as a woman, but because it would help heal wounds of the bitter campaign in the Republican New Hampshire primary.
Bush and his ally, Gov. John Sununu of New Hampshire, triumphed over Bob Dole and scuttled his presidential ambitions in that tight race by painting him as a politician who would waffle on tax increases.
Elizabeth Dole resigned as transportation secretary to give full attention to the role of loyal spouse while her husband was campaigning for the White House, a decision that aroused a debate about whether such a sacrifice undercut her image as a ground-breaker for women.
Dole has often been mentioned as a presidential or vice-presidential candidate, or senator or governor from North Carolina, and her friends say the Red Cross job will give her an independent and highly visible platform that could improve her prospects in any run for elective office later on.
In her nearly two years as labor secretary, she worked much more closely with organized labor than secretaries in the prior administration.
Dole took tougher stances on worker safety, child labor law violations, and the so-called "glass ceiling," the barrier that has inhibited progress of women and minorities to the top jobs in American corporations.
She has come under criticism for not having intervened in more labor disputes like the Eastern Airlines strike and the Greyhound Bus strike, although she had an important role in bringing together the adversaries in the Pittston Co. coal strike in Appalachia as they resolved health and pension issues.
She was also faulted for not doing more to right the relative imbalance between big business and its unions and in not imposing stiffer penalties against businesses for violations of safety laws.
In her tenure as labor secretary, Dole, a lively and crowd-pleasing speaker, was dispatched by the administration to address a wide variety of labor and women's groups.
It was noted with amusement by those in the audience that in her speeches, she invariably alluded to "my husband, Bob," and less often to her boss, the president.
Many observers in Washington were surprised by the timing of her departure, since it comes when she is launching two initiatives that she regards as very important: a campaign to remove the glass ceiling for women and minority workers by withholding federal contracts from employers that obstruct the progress of those employees, and an initiative to explore ways to better prepare American youth for entering the workplace.
Her friends said she was looking forward to the Red Cross job because it would allow her to help people in crisis.
As she once said, "The opportunity to interact with people is my cup of tea."
_ Information from AP was used in this report.