May 10, 2004

First Things First

by PG

Perhaps busy with Nick's exam, Prof. Eugene Volokh has been uncommonly inactive on his blog this weekend. He did leave an interesting question, the answer to which his readers were asked to email:

Since, say, 1960, which Cabinet-level officials (or the Director of Central Intelligence, who's pretty high up there) resigned because (1) they admit that they have failed in some task, or (2) their subordinates (direct or indirect) have failed and the officials want to take responsibility for the subordinates' failure (and perhaps their own failure to monitor the subordinates)? I'm excluding (A) firings of such officials, and (B) resignations prompted by personal scandal, unpopular comments, or general unpopularity. I'm looking for resignations of the "My policies have proven to be wrong, and I'm resigning to take responsibility for them" variety.
Due to the lack of comments on the Conspiracy, I don't know how many people have come up with answers, but I'd be interested to see if De Novo readers could answer a question that comes before Volokh's resignation query.

The question is: Since 1960, which Cabinet-level officials or CIA directors have had massive failures that were regarded as such during their term in office?

For example, J. Edgar Hoover is now something of a by-word for the government's powers of surveillance being misused. But from what I understand, he was not regarded in this light by the majority of Americans during his tenure as FBI director. Even if it was known at that time just what he was doing with his powers -- as it is now being known how military authorities in Iraq have used their powers -- it was not seen as abuse, unlike the general consensus in the U.S. and the world that the treatment of Iraqi prisoners is clearly abuse.

Earl Butz, who resigned as Secretary of Agriculture due to the furor over his making a racist joke, would not meet Volokh's parameters because the resignation was prompted by an "unpopular comment" and was not due to policy.

Samuel Riley Pierce, Jr., Secretary of Housing and Urban Development 1981-89 and the only black member of the Reagan Cabinet would fit, except for his failure to resign. An independent counsel appointed in March 1990 found "a pervasive pattern of improper and illegal behavior" within HUD, amounting to a "monumental and calculated abuse of the public trust." Pierce acknowledged that he helped create a climate in which the corruption took place, and in return for that statement, prosecutors agreed not to pursue charges against him.

Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare 1973-75 and Secretary of Defense 1981-87 resigned from the latter office on November 23, 1987, but cited his wife's declining health -- not the Iran-Contra affair -- as the reason. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987 and was pardoned by President George Bush in 1992 to forestall any prosecution over Iran-Contra.

But the majority of politicians who get into publicized trouble have committed crimes or at least broken rules governing the conduct of office-holders. People who have made mistakes, like failing to respond to Rwandan genocide, are generally regarded as simply human, when we recognize their mistakes at all. (President George W. Bush, for example, does not regard America's inaction during the killing of 800,000 people as an error.)

The most frequently invoked parallel to our current situation is Vietnam. Every aspect of Iraq, from the suspicious native population to the turning-over of the war to local troops trained by the U.S., is compared to the twists and turns of the Vietnam War, the only foreign policy failure generally and strongly acknowledged in our collective memory.

Yet even in that war, which featured massacres and massive destruction far beyond anything Americans have done in Iraq, no one at the top resigned with their errors given as the reason for the resignation. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara resigned February 29, 1968, but to become president of the World Bank and with the Medal of Freedom and the Distinguished Service Medal in hand. Though he recently has written and spoken about his regret and guilt over the mistakes he made, we cannot say that he resigned over them any more than Weinberger resigned over Iran-Contra.

Moreover, at the time McNamara resigned, his actions were not popularly regarded as clearly wrong. In the 1968 election -- in the 1972 election, as well -- Americans did not vote on the basis of the candidate who would repudiate past policy on Vietnam, but for the candidate who promised to let us have our victory and bring our troops home too.

In some ways, I would consider the calls for resignations over the Abu Ghraib scandal to be a sign of advancement in the United States. We are now able to recognize outrages as such, and to demand accountability from our leaders, instead of ignoring them as the natural consequences of war.

May 10, 2004 01:32 AM | TrackBack

Donald Regan resigned from Secretary of the Treasury amid speculation of political incompatibility with his President.

Paul O’Neill (another SecTreas) resigned over criticism of his handling of the post 9-11 economy.

Federico Pena was eased out of the DOTrans. job on charges that he was “one of the least accomplished of the Clinton first-term cabinet members.” See

He was later given the DOE job because the White House said, “oh, my goodness, we need another Hispanic.” See id.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, under investigation for improper acceptance of gifts, resigned under pressure from the White House. He cited his need to "overcome the challenge to my good name." See Ann Devroy & Susan Schmidt, Agriculture Secretary Espy Resigns, WASH. POST, Oct. 4, 1994, at A01.

Although Secretary Caspar Weinberger (DoD) resigned citing family reasons (which appears to be true given the sick nature of his spouse at the time), the timing that coincided with the Iran-Contra hearings made many people suspect that was the reason.

Tom McClarty, the first Clinton Chief of Staff, was fired from that post for “being too nice” and resultingly ineffective (things were a mess the first year of his Presidency; they wasted so much political capital on NAFTA there was nothing left for health care). He was replaced by Leon Panetta, but stuck around to be the President’s counsel. When I was a cadet at West Point studying poli sci., we went on a field trip to the White House. I asked Mr. McClarty, who had been gone from the CoS job for a year, whether he was fired for what the Press cited as the reason, “being too nice.” I had never seen someone so powerful tap dance so much. The Army Major overseeing the field trip quickly took me out in the hall and gave me a good verbal beating for embarrassing such a high level official. But it was worth it.

Secretary of Housing Cisnero faced an 18-count indictment for conspiracy, obstructing justice and making false statements to the FBI about payments to his former mistress, Linda Jones. He stepped down.

Clinton Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was going to step down after an independent counsel had started an investigation, but a plane crash made him check out on life before he could check out of the White House.

After President Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech which did nothing to help his upcoming reelection bid, he asked his entire cabinet to step down. Five members took his offer. See

That’s all I can think of right now; but I’m sure there’s more.

Posted by: centrist at May 11, 2004 07:08 PM
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