clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In politics, resignation is often a matter of principle

WASHINGTON — Sir Thomas More did it. So did William Jennings Bryan and Cyrus R. Vance. Some people thought Robert S. McNamara should have. Others, in their dreams, hope Colin L. Powell might yet.

Whether the job is lord chancellor of England under Henry VIII or secretary of state under Jimmy Carter, resigning on principle is about the most powerful statement any government official can ever make.

"It really was for me an agonizing decision," said Jerald F. terHorst, who resigned as President Gerald R. Ford's press secretary after just 30 days' service, to protest his boss' unconditional pardon of former President Richard M. Nixon. "I stayed up most of that night just formulating a three-paragraph letter of resignation."

Last week, Clare Short, the outspoken secretary of international development in Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Cabinet in Britain, threatened to become the latest high-ranking member of this exclusive club if her government joined the United States in war with Iraq without a second Security Council resolution.

Already in the current Iraq crisis, two lower-ranking U.S. career diplomats have quit in disagreement with Bush's Iraq policy.

John H. Brown, who had been a cultural attache at the embassy in Moscow, submitted his resignation to Powell, saying, "Throughout the globe, the United States is becoming associated with the unjustified use of force" and is "giving birth to an anti-American century."

And John Brady Kiesling, who had been political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Athens, resigned last month, saying in a letter to Powell, "I do so with a heavy heart."

That was the phrase Vance used when he resigned as President Jimmy Carter's secretary of state in 1980 in disagreement over the failed military effort to rescue the hostages in Iran. Vance joined Bryan, a pacifist who quit to protest President Woodrow Wilson's tough stand against Germany, as a secretary of state who resigned on a matter of principle.

Powell has stayed loyal to his commander in chief through years of internal battles with more hawkish figures, but that hasn't stopped some doves from fantasizing that frustration might push him to quit.

Insiders who disagree over policy have options short of resignation, but sometimes they are costly. In the mid-1930s, Ralph Wigram, an official in the British foreign office, risked prison when he secretly fed details of Germany's efforts to rearm itself to Winston Churchill, who was then out of power and trying to rouse Britain against appeasement of Hitler. Nearly four decades later, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department insider who had taken a copy of the Pentagon Papers to a new post at the RAND Corp., leaked the secret study of the Vietnam War to The New York Times in hopes of curtailing the conflict. He was charged with a long list of felonies, but the prosecution collapsed when the Watergate scandal revealed that the Nixon White House had burglarized Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office to gain evidence against him.

Another time-honored reason for staying an insider — to shape policy from within — carries less risk. In his memoir, McNamara said he executed the escalation of the Vietnam War, though he had come to oppose the policy, because he was loyal to President Lyndon B. Johnson and "until the day I left, I believed I could influence his decisions."

Peter B. Edelman resigned as an assistant secretary of health and human services in 1996 to protest President Bill Clinton's signing of the bill to overhaul the welfare system.

"I think it's highly personal," said Edelman, now a professor at Georgetown University's law school. "I can't think of any rules."

He then listed a few, saying the dispute "does have to be something that's very basic, that's really an extremely consequential issue."

That rule certainly covers Elliot Richardson, Nixon's attorney general, who resigned in 1973 rather than fire the special Watergate prosecutor as the president had ordered him to do.

"The other thing, I suppose," Edelman added, "is whether it's something that you yourself have anything to do with. In my case, it was that I was working directly on the issue and would be responsible for implementing this policy."

TerHorst, who is now 80, said a pardon of Nixon might eventually have been justified to avoid the spectacle of a drawn-out prosecution, but he said he had never wavered in his view that it was morally unfair to grant the former president an unconditional pardon while his aides were going to jail and draft evaders were receiving only conditional pardons.

"I guess what impelled me would be applicable today," he said. "Are you loyal to a person, to the Constitution, the country or to your own conscience? In my case, my conscience would not let me do this without feeling I had betrayed what I understood to be a basic requirement. I couldn't defend it. I was not going to go out there and defend it when I felt it was wrong."