Elliot Richardson was the Attorney General of the United States when he resigned in 1973 rather than carry out an order he couldn’t agree with. Richardson, who looked (that’s him to the left) every inch a pillar of the GOP, eastern political establishment, was ordered by Richard Nixon to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. Richardson refused to carry out the presidential order and resigned – on principle. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused and he also resigned – on principle. The third ranking official at the Justice Department, Robert Bork, eventually fired Archibald Cox in a famous episode that came to be known as “the Saturday Night Massacre.”
The resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus were seismic in their impact, in part, because the principled act of resignation is so rare in our political culture. I wonder why?
In countries with a parliamentary system – Britain and Canada, for example – it is not uncommon, indeed it is expected, that when a politician loses a major policy debate, faces a loss of confidence, reaches a breaking point on policy, or is engulfed in scandal, they resign. Scandals in the British House of Commons involving members expenses have contributed to the substantial political troubles of the ruling Labour Party. If Labour loses the upcoming elections in Britain, some might consider that punishment enough for the string of ethical transgressions. Still, a number of British ministers and even the Speaker of the Commons have resigned related to the scandal. It is part of the political culture in a parliamentary democracy.
In fact, the propensity of British politicians to resign over scandal caused the Independent a while back to question whether resignations had become too common. Needless to say, that is not a problem here.
With the notable exceptions – thank goodness – of the truly weird Rep. Eric Massa and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the rule in American politics seems to be to hang on against all odds and the culture of not knowing when to quit is a bipartisan phenomenon.
South Carolina’s embattled GOP Gov. Mark Sanford has been twisting in the winds of scandal for months now, while the state’s political structure heaved under the on-going discussion of whether Sanford ought to be impeached. Sanford appears to be the last to realize that his “hike on the Appalachian Trail” – really a visit to his girl friend Buenos Aires – long ago rendered him ineffective and unable to do his job. The principled path would have been to accept that reality, resign, move on and work on rehabilitation. In such circumstances a decision to exit signals a strength of character; not a show of weakness. Still, it happens so rarely.
Democratic politicians in New York, most notably the Gov. David Paterson and Rep. Charles Rangel, are caught up in scandals. Quitting doesn’t seem to be an option for either man. The former governor of Illinois embarrassed himself and his state for weeks before being impeached and apparently never considered stepping down.
United States Senators routinely hang on in the face of scandal. Ted Stevens and Larry Craig come to mind. Even as Sen. David Vitter leads in the polls in Louisiana, a “porn star” is threatening to trivialize that state’s senate race by entering the contest and keeping Vitter’s admission of “serious sins” front and center in the current campaign. Just yesterday, a Las Vegas television station broke the news of a slew of subpoenas issued in a Justice Department ethics investigation involving Sen. John Ensign.
The rarity of a high profile political resignation due to scandal makes Bob Packwood’s exit from the Senate in 1995 and the departure of Harrison Williams in 1982 really stand out. Both resigned before the Senate could vote, almost certainly, to expel them. It wasn’t all that obvious at the time, but Packwood’s resignation proved to be the first step toward his rehabilitation. Williams spent three years in prison.
In 1915, then-Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned to protest President Woodrow Wilson’s actions following the sinking by a German submarine of the passenger ship Lusitania. Bryan’s actions, principled in that he had been the foremost voice in the Wilson Administration in favor of U.S. neutrality in World War I, allowed him to credibly and aggressively speak out, which he did, as the president moved to support British and French war efforts.
Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, resigned in 1980 over his opposition to the rescue mission designed to free the U.S. hostages held in Iran. Vance voiced his opposition to the effort on the grounds that it would likely fail, which it did and disastrously so, and then – after the fact – he resigned. It was an act of courage and principle.
One wonders what the impact would have been in the darkest days of American involvement in Vietnam had a high official of the Johnson Administration – we know a number were quietly voicing skepticism over the course of the war – had resigned on the principle that they could no longer serve in a government with which they so profoundly disagreed. We now know that Robert McNamera harbored grave doubts about the country’s Vietnam policy, but unfortunately, another principle – political loyalty or maybe it was a lack of courage – kept him quiet. The one-time whiz kid spent his last years trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to explain himself.
Bryan and Vance, Richardson and Ruckelshaus. Their resignations were based on policy and principle and each is remembered today for an act of ethical courage. History has treated each well, but still such resignations are as rare as bipartisanship in Washington. Resigning in the midst of scandal remains just as rare in our politics
Who knows, a little more responsibility in the form of a quick resignation and exit from the political stage just might help rebuild voter confidence. That’s something the country could use about now. Quitting and leaving can truly display that there is something more important in public life than clinging to a job as long as possible, no matter the personal, political or policy cost.
In some cases the well-timed resignation also can preserve the chance for a comeback. It’s hard to envision a comeback for Eric Massa, but Spitzer is certainly trying and don’t bet against it.
Americans are usually a pretty forgiving bunch. Stay tuned for the second act in the Tiger Woods saga as proof of that American attribute. It is human nature to give the wayward a second chance, but only if responsibility is taken, the offender gets off the front page and out of the way and works hard to re-establish credibility.
More politicians, for purposes of principle and rehabilitation, should try it. Americans would come to expect and appreciate such acts of public acknowledgment, as the British have for years, and, who knows, there might be more honor and character in our politics. But, like the return of bipartisanship, I’ll not hold my breath.