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Are the Days of Honorable Resignation Over in the U.S.?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Canadian foreign minister recently resigned for leaving classified documents at a girlfriend's house, and in France this week, the army chief of staff swiftly resigned after live rounds were fired into the public during a training exercise.

Rapid, kneejerk resignations are a common tool in global politics, a way to admit fault or to take the heat for the leader or party after a particularly embarrassing incident. As the George W. Bush administration wanes, it is interesting to note that while there have been many resignations, few have been of this nature, and almost none at high levels. Since there has hardly been a shortage of controversy, is the idea of resigning honorably antiquated in the U.S., did the Bush administration reject it, or is something else going on?

One example does immediately come to mind: the resignation of Alberto Gonzalez as Attorney General when Congress increased pressure on him because of possibly perjury. It was the best way to allow the administration to reduce attention to the "torture memos," and it was allegedly initiated by Gonzalez himself, in the honorable resignation tradition.

Sure, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, and others in the Bush administration resigned in a cloud, but none with the immediacy or selflessness of the French and Canadian examples. Perhaps the closest parallel other than Gonzalez is the recent removal of the top civilian and military officials in the Air Force. These men did resign to take responsibility for an error involving live nuclear missiles but most coverage indicated they were forced out for other reasons as well.

In political campaigns it still happens, from Samantha Powers in Obama's camp to a number in McCain's for unsavory lobbying ties. But such resignations have been few and far between over the last eight years.