Barton Leonard still remembers the night 26 years ago when his mother, concerned for his safety, hired a mechanic to install a single safety belt in the yellow school bus that would take him to nursery school. "She was your traditional overprotective mom," says Leonard, 31, a suburban Washington, D.C., emergency-room physician. "It's not like she was obsessive about it."
No? Well, there were the fire drills. Sue Bailey would regularly make Barton and his sister Lee practice scurrying down fold able ladders from their second-story bedrooms. Decades before bike helmets were commonplace, Bailey insisted that her kids wear them. And to this day she won't get settled at a restaurant table until she has identified all the fire exits. "Safety and prevention," says Leonard, "are part of her."
Even more so since August, when Bailey, 57, became the nation's road-safety czar as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency charged with keeping motorists safe. "We teased her insufferably for years," says her sister Janet, 51, who recalls Bailey making her own child-safety car seats long before they were required. "This is the perfect job for her."
The timing, however, has proved less than ideal for Bailey, who took office Aug. 21, just 12 days after Firestone recalled millions of faulty tires blamed for more than 100 deaths, most involving Ford Explorers. In less than three weeks she was testifying before Congress, trying to explain why her agency hadn't stepped in earlier and possibly prevented some deaths. "I'm sure the American people are glad to know that our safety agency waits until someone dies before launching an investigation into defective products," sneered Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Commerce, which oversees consumer safety. (Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain challenged her appointment, charging that she hadn't disclosed some $70,000 in campaign contributions. Bailey, whose position does not require Senate confirmation, apologized for what she called a "human error.")
Yet Bailey stood up to the task, putting in 16-hour days and working through weekends to mobilize her agency. Already, she has proposed new safety tests for tires and legislation requiring manufacturers of auto parts to report foreign recalls. "We feel that we are in the middle of a troop deployment," she says. "She has had grace under pressure," says Joan Clay-brook, president of the consumer group Public Citizen. "I think she will be able to handle tough issues with fierce adversaries."
Bailey's ambition was honed early. Born in Rapid City, S.Dak., and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, she was the third of four children of an osteopathic physician and his wife, a substitute teacher and musician. Hearing her father every night talking about his patients, Bailey aspired to be a doctor, poring over the scientific volumes in his office and savoring biographies of medical heroes. "My girlfriends would say, 'How can you be interested in that stuff?' " she recalls. "Well, it was interesting to me."
But medical school had to wait. Bailey married her high school sweetheart at 18 and gave birth the following year to daughter Lee. They divorced in 1965; two years later she married Terrance Leonard—first an Air Force pilot, then a lawyer—with whom she had Barton. The family moved half a dozen times in 20 years as Leonard pursued his career and Bailey took courses at five different colleges before earning a degree in psychology at the University of Maryland in 1973. Working toward becoming a doctor at a time when it remained a male-dominated profession, she was often one of the few women in her premed classes and says she got little encouragement from college counselors. "I would find a door closed in my face," Bailey says, "and look for another one to open."
When one did, at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, she enrolled; then, while still in school, she joined the Navy in 1974, following the lead of a brother. She earned her osteopathic medical degree in 1977, focusing on psychiatry and neurology. "I was intrigued by the complexity of the human mind," says Bailey, who went on to open a private practice in Washington, D.C., teach at Georgetown Medical School and work as a medical correspondent for NBC's Today.
Divorced again in 1987, she married Alex Mandl, a top shipping-company executive, three years later. They divorced in 1997. "Sometimes you can't control everything in life," she says of her marriages.
A skilled public speaker, she was tapped as spokeswoman for President Clinton's failed health care reform effort and later served as assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, overseeing medical care for 8.2 million military personnel and family members. She drew widespread criticism for the 1998 decision to inoculate troops with a vaccine to protect them against anthrax—though she maintained it was safe and effective. To counter critics, she took the shots herself to demonstrate her faith in their safety.
President Clinton was impressed enough to put her in charge of the Highway Safety Administration. Though she has been consumed so far with the tire-recall investigation, she hopes in time to encourage the kind of safety measures she has been practicing herself for years. One possibility: requiring seat belts on school buses. "When you have a child, you don't want them hurt in any way," says Bailey. "Every mother feels that."
Susan Gray and J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C.
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