ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO FOR USN&WR
With a résumé like Ed Schafer's, President Bush could have picked the former two-term North Dakota governor, boyhood farmer, telecommunications exec, conservationist, Junkyard Wars runner-up, and classic car and tractor restorer to run any of about six cabinet agencies. But it was the Agriculture Department Schafer wanted. "This is a good fit," he tells us. Winning kudos for being a tireless worker (he works out early and regularly skips lunch) and straight shooter (Congress sometimes "drives me crazy"), Schafer is fast becoming a key point man for Bush on the pending farm bill and trade deals. "This is a 110 percent job," he says.
Schafer is a rare Washington utility player, somebody with a very diverse background in ag, politics, media, and business. Two examples: He and two pals auditioned in 2003 for the cable show Junkyard Wars. They made it, building contraptions like a "car dozer" to push disabled autos off the street. Rigging things, he says, "is a way of life in farm country." Higher up the food chain, the M.B.A. marketed "Mr. Bubble" bath soap and later started a telecom biz, which was bought by Sprint.
He sees that broad experience as the secret to his success and ability to relate to people. "You need an understanding of how public policy affects people's everyday lives," he says, "and you don't learn that sitting in this office."