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The Nation : The Art of Exits: What, You're Still Here? : Politics: A wink from the President used to be enough to get an appointee to resign gracefully. Now, Sessions revealed, you need a crowbar.

July 25, 1993|John P. Sears | John P. Sears, a political analyst, served as Ronald Reagan's campaign manager in 1976 and 1980

WASHINGTON — In the normal course of events, politics should attract people motivated by two basic ingredients: principle and loyalty. Both are essential--principle being the source of ideas and fair compro mise, and loyalty that virtue by which people subordinate their thoughts and ambitions to the greater good.

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of both in politics today. Almost daily, we see examples of unprincipled, disloyal people willing to admit that self-interest is all that motivates their decisions. Yet, there is no outcry from the press or, more important, from the body politic, about the corruption of this ancient and necessary craft.

During the last week, we saw the end of a tawdry political saga that had hung over the Federal Bureau of Investigation for more than a year. FBI Director William S. Sessions finally resigned after receiving a direct order from the President to do so--but only after subjecting the institution he was sworn to preserve to substantial damage because of his conduct. His unsupported attempts to claim his dismissal was the product of some disagreement over principle proved that he was willing to use any conceivable fabrication in defense of his self-interest.

How is it that a man deemed unworthy of his office by two different Administrations could hold on for so long? Unfortunately, Sessions was not the only one in this saga to demonstrate a lack of principle and a misconception of loyalty.

Presumably, the director qualified for firing more than a year ago, for failing to do an adequate job. The FBI was mired in contentious debate over its policies (or lack thereof) on hiring women and minorities; it had made no meaningful contribution to solving the crime problem and seemed indecisive about exactly what its function was in the post-Cold War era. Its most publicized involvement last year was the arrest of the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals for harassing an important GOP fund-raiser--acting on a complaint made directly by the lady in question to Sessions.

But President George Bush seemed hesitant about firing Sessions--he had been appointed at the suggestion of some important Republican senators and had received the imprimatur of Bush's predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Somebody from Bush's Administration must have discussed resignation with Sessions last year but, presumably, he refused.

This should have been the end of matters, since Sessions should have been fired for insubordination. Political loyalty runs uphill in politics--all appointive officers serving at the pleasure of the President and any downhill obligations a President may have are satisfied once his minions have suggested resignation.

Of course, Sessions was not fired. Instead, an investigation of his conduct was undertaken by the attorney general. Sessions was accused of using FBI personnel for his private purposes, as well as charging the FBI for personal expenses. Whether true or not, these charges were far afield from the substance of the matter: Sessions was not doing an adequate job, and this was reason enough to replace him.

Bill Clinton, when the whole affair was dumped into his lap, at first did nothing. A more-than-willing FBI answered the call from the White House to cooperate in trying to justify the firing of its travel office, so perhaps Sessions felt this favor gave him renewed vigor in saving his job. Appearing no more willing to fire Sessions than Bush, Clinton dispatched his attorney general to request Sessions' resignation, but found the director as uncooperative as he was a year earlier. Finally, he was fired.

When anyone takes a presidential appointment, he or she gives all loyalty to the President. One may argue over matters of principle--but not in public or to the embarrassment of the President. If a President makes a decision that so directly contradicts one of his appointee's principles that he cannot support it, the appointee should quietly, and without comment, resign. These are the old rules of politics and they still are the best rules.

Government certainly functioned under those rules. Even in the confusing days of the Watergate scandal, Atty. Gen. Elliot L. Richardson and his deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than carry out an order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox--and both did so without making derogatory comments about President Richard Nixon. Dean G. Acheson resigned his post at the Treasury Department during the Roosevelt Administration without comment, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the country off the gold standard. And, to their credit, men such as Sherman L. Adams, Robert S. McNamara, Walter J. Hickel and Bert Lance resigned and departed saying good things about the Presidents they had so lately served.

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