Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole, the first member of President Bush's Cabinet to resign, said Wednesday she was leaving for new challenges and not because of "totally erroneous" reports she lacked influence at the White House. Dole, the highest-ranking woman in the Bush administration, said that after 25 years of government service, she was looking forward to focusing on humanitarian causes at her new job as president of the American Red Cross.
She denied she had been frozen out by White House policymakers. Aides and union leaders have said she had little clout at Bush's Cabinet table, and many labor policy decisions were left to chief of staff John Sununu.
"I can't imagine who was saying this. . . . Most definitely, I feel very much a part of the circle that's making the decisions here at the White House," Dole said after announcing her resignation with the president at her side.
Later, in an interview, Dole testily labeled those reports "totally erroneous."
"It's been a wonderful relationship," she said of her ties to the White House.
She said White House aides such as Sununu and budget director Richard Darman naturally have a close working relationship with the president. "But my issues, obviously, I'm the one carrying the ball, I'm the one developing the strategy."
Dole, wife of Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, also denied she might use the Red Cross position to lay the groundwork for long-term political goals.
"I'm on my way to the Red Cross. I have no plans to run for anything," she said. Rumors have been rampant that she would eventually step down to run in 1992 for the Senate seat now held by Democrat Terry Sanford of her native North Carolina.
In the interview, she did not rule out some future bid for elective office. "You learn in this town never to say never," she said.
Bush said Dole had "earned the respect of the American people and as secretary of Labor has made the work place safer, healthier and more secure."
Dole, 54, said the choice of her successor was "up to the president. . . . What the president and I have discussed, I think, has to remain between the two of us, but that is his decision, obviously."
Four women are among those who have been mentioned as possible successors. They are Constance Newman, head of the Office of Personnel Management; Rep. Lynn Martin, R-Ill., should she lose her bid for the Senate in the Nov. 6 election; Elaine Chao, who holds the No. 2 job at the Transportation Department; and Constance Horner, undersecretary at the Health and Human Services Department.
The Red Cross job pays $185,000 a year. Cabinet secretaries make $98,400. Dole will formally leave the Labor Department on Nov. 23 and is expected to start her new job in January.