Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

R. James Nicholson (2005–2007): Secretary of Veterans' Affairs

Robert James Nicholson was born on February 4, 1938, and grew up on a tenant farm in Iowa with six siblings. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1961. He then served as a paratrooper and Army Ranger for eight years, including active duty in the Vietnam War. Following that, he was in the Army Reserve for twenty-two years and retired as a colonel.

Nicholson received a master’s degree from Columbia University and a law degree from the University of Denver. He practiced law in Denver, until 1978 when he founded Nicholson Enterprises, Inc., which developed planned residential communities.

In 1986, Nicholson was elected committeeman from Colorado for the Republican National Committee. He was elected vice-chairman of the RNC in 1993, and four years later, he was elected chairman of the RNC. He served as chairman for four years.

In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Nicholson as the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. During his time in Rome, Nicholson worked to advanced many of the Bush administration’s foreign policy goals, including ending human trafficking, allowing religious freedom, and thwarting international terrorism. He was knighted by Pope John Paul II in 2003 for his work representing the United States at the Vatican. Nicholson authored The United States and the Holy See: The Long Road, a history of American relations with the Vatican.

In 2005, President Bush nominated Nicholson to be secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs. He served as secretary for more than two and a half years, during which time he tried to ensure that the department was better prepared to address the demands placed on it as veterans returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. He also oversaw a major upgrade of the department’s information technology system and worked to improve care for veterans with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, during his tenure, the VA struggled financially, and critics accused the VA of providing inadequate care for war veterans. Nicholson resigned in July 2007 to return to the private sector.