US presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain last week promised to draft "the best and the brightest" of American CEOs to work in his administration if he was elected, and named Cisco Systems's John Chambers and Microsoft's Steve Ballmer as among those he'd tap.
But it was hard to tell if he was serious.
During an on-stage interview with Wall Street Journal columnists at the paper's (D: All Things Digital conference last week, McCain told how he would select a cabinet. Rather than choose on the basis of campaign contributions or ideological purity, he said he would "Pick the person in America who has been a success and understands the issue, and ask them to come back and serve their country."
When asked to name names, McCain said, "I would hire John Chambers," the CEO of Cisco, and "I would hire Fred Smith." Smith is the CEO of FedEx Corp. "I could give you a long list of names," said McCain, who paused for a moment before adding, "Steve Ballmer."
Journal columnist Kara Swisher then drew laughter when she chimed in with "Steve Ballmer, Secretary of State, right?" Ballmer, who according to a 2005 sworn statement, tossed a chair and yelled "I am going to ... kill Google" when an engineer told him he was leaving for the rival, has a reputation for being less than diplomatic.
Riding the laughter, McCain didn't hesitate. "How about ambassador to China, that would be good."
Although Ballmer, through Microsoft's public relations agency, declined to comment, a spokesman for Cisco's Chambers said the CEO was honored to be named by McCain. "But only a few months ago, he committed to our board that he will stay with Cisco for three to five more years," said the spokesman. "So, yes, hypothetically, if he was asked, he would decline."
According to the biography on Cisco's Web site, Chambers served on President George W. Bush's transition team in 2000-2001, and before that, on the Trade Policy Committee from 1998-99 during President Clinton's administration.
By the biography posted to Microsoft's site, Ballmer has no comparable experience in the public sector.