Better to quit with honor than stay in disgrace
November 30, 2008 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Do American politicians ever honorably resign in disgrace?

So, the Indian security chief resigned over Mumbai attacks. Yeah, he resigned in disgrace, but he was honorable enough to own up to it, and quit.

My question: Do U.S. politicians every honorably resign in disgrace?

P.S.: Now, you may mention "Browny." However, he was relieved of all duties before he resigned, so he doesn't really count.
posted by GarageWine to Law & Government (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
umm... Nixon? Trent Lott? Larry Craig?

I'm sure there are many, many more examples. Nixon is of course the highest-profile, being the only US President to resign from office.
posted by namewithoutwords at 9:25 AM on November 30, 2008

Disgrace is defined partly as "loss of reputation or respect, especially as a result of dishonorable action", so no one can ever really be disgracefully honorable.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:26 AM on November 30, 2008

on second read, you did say "honorably". While it was honorable of Nixon to resign without forcing impeachment, I don't suppose his actions were all that honorable. So, umm..perhaps the people I mentioned don't meet your criteria after all.
posted by namewithoutwords at 9:26 AM on November 30, 2008

Nixon. Probably arguable whether it qualified as 'honorably' or 'in disgrace,' but it was certainly the highest-profile resignation in American political history.
posted by box at 9:27 AM on November 30, 2008

I think the OP is getting at politicians who resign because of a failure of their office, not their person. I don't know any actual examples offhand, but a theoretical example would be Condaleeza Rice resigning as NSA after 9/11.
posted by mkultra at 9:30 AM on November 30, 2008

It wasn't quite the classic fall-on-your-sword, but Richard Clarke's resignation in 2003, followed by his testimony to the 9/11 Commission, probably counts here.
posted by holgate at 9:43 AM on November 30, 2008

...Yeah, he resigned in disgrace, but he was honorable enough to own up to it, and quit.

Well, if that's your criteria for "honorable", you'd have to scratch Nixon. He resigned, ostensibly, to avoid impeachment. However, he did so without admitting any wrongdoing.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:44 AM on November 30, 2008

but Richard Clarke's resignation in 2003, followed by his testimony to the 9/11 Commission, probably counts here.

Resigning from office and then hastening to point the finger at everyone else is not what the poster is looking for.
posted by jayder at 9:48 AM on November 30, 2008

Resigning from office and then hastening to point the finger at everyone else is not what the poster is looking for.

He pointed a finger at himself as well: "To them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed."
posted by Knappster at 9:53 AM on November 30, 2008

There was Spiro Agnew. He resigned as part of a plea bargain in a bribery case.
posted by Class Goat at 9:55 AM on November 30, 2008

Eliot Spitzer resigned as Governor of New York.
posted by Class Goat at 9:57 AM on November 30, 2008

Newt Gingrich is a pretty close analog, though his failings were explicitly political/strategic rather than policy. Any sane person would expect the outparty Republicans to have gained seats in 1998 like in every other midterm election, but they lost seats, so he resigned as Speaker and as Representative.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:08 AM on November 30, 2008

namewithoutwords: Trent Lott resigned so he could become a lobbyist, not in disgrace. And Larry Craig said he was going to resign, and then he didn't.
posted by Dec One at 10:13 AM on November 30, 2008

When you listen to his speeches or pressers toward the end, there was no way Nixon believed he was resigning in disgrace.
posted by Zambrano at 10:14 AM on November 30, 2008

David Walker, the US Comptroller General (head of the GAO) resigned earlier this year after declaring that spending was out of control and his fiscal advice was being ignored. It's not quite the same as the case in India, since he roughly said "nobody is listening to me, why waste my time" as opposed to "I've failed and will resign," but there are some simularities.
posted by bsdfish at 10:57 AM on November 30, 2008

I really don't see many of the examples being given qualifying, at least as I read the OP's question. mkultra made a good point about Rice hypothetically.

I would say that the honorable resignation seen in India and Japan does have something to do with Asian attitudes about saving face. In the US and I would say the UK as well it is definitely more about hanging tough until the very end, generally resigning only to save your boss's face, with Brown being a classic example. There are plenty of others of that variety, the most egregious perhaps being FBI Director William Sessions.

But I would say that this is an outlier period as well, because Bush in particular as a President has been very reluctant to ask for resignations. It probably figures into his unusual valuation of loyalty (see Brownie!) as a rationale for job qualification. (A local example being Steve Preston, who went to my high school. With no experience in small business, he was appointed Administrator of the Small Business Administration awkwardest title in the USG, and with no experience in housing, promoted to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.) If someone has been "loyal" to Dubya, he sees no good reason to kick them to the curb, even if they've lost the confidence of the American public.

So even by US standards, the last 8 years have seen relatively few resignations that would even come close to qualifying under the OP's criteria.
posted by dhartung at 11:07 AM on November 30, 2008

Well, as has been said, the conditions are pretty loosely defined here. Thee majority politicians who resign seem to go out saying they are innocent, but must resign due to protecting their family, or losing support, or being convicted of crimes they did not commit, and all that rot.

Do you want nobility in the act? How about resignations due to refusal to act in a certain way, and thereby be in disgrace with one's superiors? Can do, just revisit the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal. Look up the Saturday Night Massacre. Both the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States resigned rather than firing the special prosecutor for the Watergate scandal. This was a really big deal at the time, with great outrage across the country at Nixon's behavior. It probably accelerated his departure from the White House.
posted by mdevore at 11:22 AM on November 30, 2008

I think this is all too subjective in your definition (or lack thereof) of "honorably." I most instances, the parties will try to make the resignation of one of their own look like the "honorable" thing to do, even if it is due to damning or disgracing circumstances.
posted by piratebowling at 11:36 AM on November 30, 2008

Gen. Hugh Shelton resigned as Joint Chief of Staff on Oct 1, 2001. The implication at the time was that he had failed in his duty to protect America from attack.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:37 AM on November 30, 2008

Okay, the way I read your question, I believe your calling into mind the idea that disgraced leaders should "fall on the sword" like defeated samurai's used to do.

I don't think Craig, Gingrich, and Nixon fit the bill. The closest that comes to my head (in American politics) would be Elliot Spitzer and maybe Colin Powell.
posted by unexpected at 12:00 PM on November 30, 2008

I agree with dhartung that this ultimately isn't a tradition rooted in American culture. Shelton's a decent nod, but his resignation didn't have an air of "I'm taking responsibility for this disaster".

Why Spitzer? He resigned because of a massive moral failing, not because his administration failed.

If Powell had resigned in the midst of the Iraq invasion, I'd agree. As it is, he left between terms, which is a fairly common thing.
posted by mkultra at 1:17 PM on November 30, 2008

Why Spitzer? He resigned because of a massive moral failing, not because his administration failed.

No kidding. Spitzer is a terrible example of an "honorable resignation".
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:22 PM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think the Indians learnt it from the British Parliamentary tradition, where this was once common. Classic example was the Foreign Secretary resigning when the Argentines invaded the Falklands in 1982.
posted by A189Nut at 1:32 PM on November 30, 2008

In Canada, Member of Parliament Sheila Copps resigned her seat when her party broke an election promise to reduce the federal sales tax. She ran in the ensuing byelection, and won.
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 1:46 PM on November 30, 2008

I must be getting older than I thought, because the first one I thought of besides the Nixon-era ones was Sununu. The catch, though, is the OP's use of the word 'honorable'. US politicians tend to resign due to scandal, not disaster or malfeasance. In cases of the latter, they fight on, seeking to vindicate themselves and/or their bosses, until being "forced out".

An especially twisted example of seeking vindication is Tom Delay, who, facing indictment, stayed in office, ran for re-election, then resigned before facing the voters (yet too late for his party to nominate someone else). To me, he's the epitome of dishonorable.
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:45 PM on November 30, 2008

William Ruckelshaus did resign rather than execute Nixon's order to fire Archibald Cox. one could argue that because he could not please his president he resigned in disgrace but that because he refused to obey a wrong (unconstitutional?) order he did so honorably.

other commenters have suggested Nixon and Spitzer acted honorably in disgrace as well. I disagree with that assessment.

Nixon did not own up to his mistakes and Spitzer held a self-righteous news conference in which he even made his wife stand next to him throughout the ordeal. both men displayed an extraordinarily aloof attitude that given the situation had to leave one with the impression that they felt an injustice had been committed against them. this was far from honorable to those who had brought their resignations about.

the honorable thing for Spitzer would have been to really take the blame, perhaps apologize to his wife and those who voted for him and oh yeah, say a nice word or two about the investigative authorities actually doing a pretty decent job for once. even just not waiting weeks to actually resign would have sufficed in my and the opinion of some (one linked).

the honorable thing for Nixon would have been to surrender all tapes. you know, including certain missing minutes. a proper admission of guilt would have made the pardon easier to swallow as well but as things stand that's still something I have beef with ford over as he just effectively ended the investigation without the public knowing the real and full extend of nixons deeds (again... beyond what the commission had already revealed).
posted by krautland at 3:52 PM on November 30, 2008

In 1983, Phil Gramm resigned his House seat when he switched from the Democratic to the Republican parties, and then immediately ran in the special election triggered by the vacancy he created - the logic being that he wanted to give his constituents a say in whether they wanted a Republican to represent them.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, that's an honorable resignation.
posted by deadmessenger at 4:26 PM on November 30, 2008

British MP Dave Davis gave up his seat (and re-ran for it) to protest his government's plans for extending detention to an insane 90 days without the need for charges being pressed. He was subsequently re-elected in the by-election. He resigned in disgust more than disgrace.

Given how the Bush administration values loyalty over competence you'll have seen very few persons in a position of power resign over mistakes their underlings made. Which president was it who had a sign with "The Buck Stops Here" on his desk? These days bucks stop way, way lower in the organisation, and ends often justify the means.

not really an answer to your question, maybe an explanation of why in the face of widespread incompetence any answers are so rare.
posted by LanTao at 6:12 PM on November 30, 2008

It's one of the key defining characteristics of the Westminster system.
posted by Mephisto at 6:54 PM on November 30, 2008

I think that Bob Livingston qualifies.
posted by davidmsc at 7:58 PM on November 30, 2008

Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for another term in 1968. Granted, he probably would have lost the November election had he continued but he might have been able to pull off the Democratic nomination. Maybe.

He didn't resign but he decided not to run.
posted by Glibpaxman at 9:15 PM on November 30, 2008

Donald Rumsfeld?
posted by SamuelBowman at 12:49 AM on December 1, 2008

Donald Rumsfeld?

fixed that for you.
posted by krautland at 4:33 AM on December 1, 2008

I think that Bob Livingston qualifies.

Why? Again, massive personal failing, not policies.
posted by mkultra at 5:51 AM on December 1, 2008

Thanks for all the answers. From the responses, it seems that there are three types of resignations:

1. Malfeasance. Getting caught with one's hand in the cookie jar, philandering, etc. These folks usually resign to avoid some other consequence such as getting indicted or getting voted out of office. (See: Nixon, Spitzer, Livingston, above)

2. Moral high road. These folks resign because they think they are speaking the truth, but no one will listen to them. They quit because its pointless to stay on or they don't want to be associated with a bad decision that they disagree with. (See: Davis, Ruckelshaus, Copps, above)

3. Performance failure. This is the "falling on the sword" resignation. The politician's department failed to perform its duties and the politician resigns to (a) allow a more competent person take over, and/or (b) maintain confidence in the broader government. Under this approach, the head of the FBI, CIA, and NSA should have resigned after 9/11; "Browny" should have resigned on day 2 of the Katrina fiasco.

The OP was about #3. And, it looks like that is rare beast. Again, thanks for the responses.
posted by GarageWine at 12:47 PM on December 1, 2008

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