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COMMENTARY: Press chiefs and honor
Question of the Day
Doesn’t anybody in Washington know how to resign any more? That question arises in the muddy wake of the 15 minutes of infamy Scott McClellan has assured himself by hawking a tell-more-than-all book about why he stepped down (or was pushed out) as George W. Bush’s press secretary.
It is not a pretty story, and it may reflect poorest on the teller. If Mr. McClellan really thought he was participating in a conspiracy to mislead the American people, why didn’t he submit his resignation and walk away? That would have been the honorable thing.
Instead, he stuck around and kept enjoying the pay and perks and whatever brittle status the presidential hack-in-chief has in our style-over-substance culture. He only left when he had to after the customary exchange of forced smiles and mutual expressions of feigned affection. There’s something clean about a simple resignation that this kind of charade can’t match.
But in a way his book is only half a betrayal; the other half is almost a defense against the accusation of Warmonger used against presidents going back at least to Franklin Roosevelt. Because while accusing the administration of rushing to war on false pretenses, he also says he doesn’t believe this president “or his White House deliberately or consciously sought to deceive the American people.”
Goodness, Mr. McClellan, make up your treacherous mind. If you’re going to betray your old boss, then betray him. Don’t just prance around the point. Brutus & Co., an old Italian firm made famous by an English playwright of some note, didn’t just tickle Caesar with their daggers; they struck deep, time and again, with fatal effect. Honorable men, all honorable men, Mark Antony called them with scathing scorn.
Mr. McClellan just wavers. His brief for/against the Bush White House is as vague as his press conferences used to be. Undecided between being brazen and indecisive, he seems to have settled for both.
What should he have done if his putative conscience was offended by what he was being asked to do in high office? An example is available, though naturally it is forgotten in these times when superficial Success is all. Once upon a long-ago time - Gerald Ford’s - there was a presidential press secretary named Jerry terHorst, an old friend of the Michigan congressman who suddenly found himself president amid the tumult called Watergate.
Mr. terHorst had only held the job for a month when President Ford, in an announcement that shocked the country and its sense of justice, granted Richard Nixon, co-conspirator-in-chief, a presidential pardon. Jerry terHorst was appalled. More than that, he did something about it. Something simple, decent, honorable. He resigned.
That’s all. He didn’t write a best-seller. He didn’t go on a book tour to hawk it. He just left. He did, however write a letter of resignation that still stands as a model for what a conscientious public servant does in these circumstances. After expressing his gratitude to President Ford for his many considerations, and assuring the president he was leaving the press office in professional shape, he explained his decision directly, concisely and not without a certain elegance:
So it is with great regret, after long soul-searching, that I must inform you that I cannot in good conscience support your decision to pardon former President Nixon even before he has been charged with the commission of any crime. As your spokesman, I do not know how I could credibly defend that action in the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience and the absence of pardons for former aides and associates of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes - and imprisoned - stemming from the same Watergate situation. These are also men whose reputations and families have been grievously injured. Try as I can, it is impossible to conclude that the former president is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national wellbeing.
Thus it is with a heavy heart that I hereby tender my resignation as press secretary to the president, effective today. My prayers nonetheless remain with you, sir.
Whereupon Mr. terHorst took his personal effects and walked out the White House door. He would go back to his newspaper, the Detroit News, as a columnist and to his life as a conscientious journalist and honorable man. He never did change his mind about the pardon, noting decades later: “But I would still say I am exactly where I was 25 years ago, that it [the pardon] set up a double standard of justice.”
Jerry terHorst remained a man not only of simple decorum but simple honor. It is hard to imagine anyone ever saying such a thing about Scott McClellan.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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