Elaine Chao was appointed Peace Corps Director by President Bush on October 8, 1991. She resigned on November 13, 1992. I believe her thirteen months as Director is the shortest tour. When I interviewed her in her first months at the Peace Corps, she had already made one tour to Africa and sitting in her office she broke down in tears recalling how the PCVs were living overseas. This was first of many ‘teardowns’ she would have in speaking to RPCV groups. It became a standard joke and RPCVs began to laugh at her when she had her outbursts. Hey, this is the Peace Corps, what did you expect?
Later I would learn on her first trip to West Africa and visiting a female volunteer living in a village and seeing how the young woman was dealing with life in the developing world, she burst out, “Does your mother know how you’re living?”
Chao was also famous for ‘booking’ visits to ‘hair salons’ daily while traveling in Third World countries. Her hair is very important to her. (I hope they know that at the Transportation Department.)
She only didn’t like the role of seeing officials overseas and would more often spend time playing volleyball with PCVs then going to government offices to conduct Peace Corps business.
Back in DC in her office, she was also famous for having a small bell on her desk and wherever she wanted her secretary in the outer office to change her drinking water, she’d ring her bell and the tinkling would command the woman to rush with more drinking water.
When I interviewed her in 1991, I asked her why she didn’t join the Peace Corps, at the time she was still single. Her explanation was that she was an immigrant and had come on a freighter from Taiwan when she was eight. She had to find her way first in America. She didn’t mention that her father was already a successful owner of a shipping company in New York and that she would go on to receive a first-rate academic career.
I didn’t bother telling her that the majority of PCVs did not attend ivy league schools or come from wealthy families, but they still joined the Peace Corps.
What she is, then and now, is a wealthy woman who looks out for herself and used her position at the Peace Corps to advance her own career.
One last Peace Corps story that sums up her brief career at the agency. When the Peace Corps representative for United Way went around HQ getting donations, I’m told, Chao said no. She didn’t give to the organization, she reportedly said.
Shortly after that, Chao heard that she was being considered to take over United Way, suffering at the time from the mismanagement by the former president William Aramony. Chao was the perfect person, an Asian woman and coming with the halo of the Peace Corps. She quickly asked to see the United Way person at the Peace Corps and made a donation.
Of her long career in and out of government, The New York Times in an article on May 13, 2014, would describe her as “an unapologetically ambitious operator with an expansive network, a short fuse, and a seemingly inexhaustible drive to get to the top and stay there.” It also reported that as labor secretary, she “had gold-colored coins minted with her name in bas-relief and employed a “Veep“-like staff member who carried around her bag.”
Now, I wonder if she brought her “little Peace Corps bell” to her new job as Secretary of Transportation?