BALTIMORE — Rodney Slater, the US secretary of Transportation, was greeted by the wail of a pair of infants as he boarded the crowded Southwest Airlines flight to Chicago.
He squeezed down the aisle past 200 people, taking the only seat left in the last row. A flight attendant folded his blazer and placed it in the overhead bin atop a jumbo box of oatmeal-raisin cookies. The athletically built Mr. Slater took the middle seat, scanned the sports section, and chatted with seat mates.
Despite his year and a half in the Cabinet, brokering the $218 billion transportation bill and overseeing 100,000 employees, no one - including the crew - recognized him. Until the flight's end, when a passenger touched his elbow. "Do you play professional sports?" she asked. "You look kind of familiar."
Welcome to the anonymous world of Rodney Slater. Credited as an effective Transportation secretary even by many Republicans, Slater goes about his work quietly in an administration where notoriety has too often become familiar for the wrong reasons.
He is admired for his efforts to modernize the nation's transportation systems - from subways to airways. Perhaps more important, he is respected for not trumpeting his achievements. His low-key demeanor has made him an important bridge between the administration and Republicans on the Hill - and he is already being talked about as a future Democratic star.
"Rodney Slater does more for America every month than the secretary of State does in four years," says Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House transportation committee.
The White House is pinning hope on Slater to find common ground in the acrimonious Northwest Airlines strike, now in its 11th day. Another wave of furloughs is expected this week, adding to the more than 27,000 idled airline workers so far.
"I'm not recognized too often," Slater says with understatement, exiting the plane at Midway Field in Chicago. "It happens a lot."
The Southwest flight represents a markedly different level of transportation from his seat on Air Force One, close to fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton, with whom he is a close friend and adviser. Indeed, his modest style represents one reason Slater manages to fly under the radar even during high-profile periods like last week, when virtually every headline centered on a transportation issue.
Last Tuesday, he met with Northwest chief executive John Dasburg and the Air Line Pilots Association, trying to resolve the walkout. Wednesday he strategized over a terrorist threat that evacuated the Federal Aviation Administration building in Washington. On Thursday, he awoke to oversee the US response to the Swissair crash off Nova Scotia.
At the same time, he was involved in putting forward proposals for a new crash-test dummy to simulate the effects of air bags on women. Crowded into his calender, too, were the more routine duties: kicking off a national campaign, for instance, urging people to stop for red lights.
"It seems to me he ... makes decisions that affect every American, every single day, and he is anonymous," says Mr. Shuster, who credits Slater's mediation as critical to passage of the transportation bill.
Still, it will take all Slater's acumen to move the Northwest strike beyond its current impasse. Pilots are seeking to regain ground lost five years ago when they made wage concessions to help pull the airline back from near bankruptcy. The airline insists it cannot afford the wage structure pilots are demanding.
Unlike the American Airlines strike in 1993, the Northwest stoppage isn't threatening the entire air-travel system. Nevertheless, it is costing the company $15 million a day and is affecting nearly a million passengers in regions where the carrier has major hubs, including Minnesota, Michigan, and Tennessee.
Slater will have to assess the two side's positions and recommend when - and whether - the president should intercede. "If he were to try to press the issue in a big, public way, and involve the president, then he is at risk," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "But his involvement appears constructive and doesn't raise expectations."
His recommendations will be important, too, because of the broader implications. "There are much larger forces at play here - the Clinton administration's relationship with the unions and with the state delegations where the strike is hitting hardest," says David Stemplar, head of the Air Travelers Association in Washington. "From Northwest's point of view, they have other unions standing in line behind the pilots. Management is concerned about creating a benchmark where premium wages are expected."
Slater isn't a novice to transportation issues. He served as the first black chairman of the Arkansas State Highway Commission. After Clinton won the presidency, he tapped Slater to head the Federal Highway Commission. A year and a half ago, he was elevated to transportation secretary when Federico Pea moved to the Energy Department.
A lawyer by training, Slater's upbringing was modest and rooted in rural Arkansas, similar to his current boss. His mother and stepfather still live in Marianna, the town he grew up in. As a kid, Slater picked cotton in the Arkansas delta. He went to college in Michigan on a football scholarship.
"He has a lot of humility, and he is very much liked in the department because he doesn't put on airs," says Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corp., a Washington-based transportation consulting firm.
Still one of the president's closest confidants, Slater's importance may be be amplified during the balance of Clinton's tenure as other senior people leave. "Slater has always been one of the advisers the president trusts most," says a White House source.
What Slater learns from his Washington experience could be important. Sources say he may later run for Congress or Arkansas governor.