- - Friday, May 30, 2014


Eric K. Shinseki is a decorated combat veteran of the war in Vietnam, where he won three Bronze Stars. A talent for retreat is not something combat veterans cultivate easily, and on Friday Mr. Shinseki learned a brutal truth in the ways of Washington warfare: When you see the first droplets of your blood in the water, the battle’s over. The only thing left to do is run for the graveyard.

Mr. Shinseki pleaded at the end for the opportunity to stay in the president’s Cabinet to clean up the considerable mess at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where there’s scandal aplenty in the network of hospitals for veterans. Mr. Shinseki called the abuse of veterans, many of them forced to wait months for proper treatment, “reprehensible” and “unacceptable.” But it was too late for mere adjectives, however flammable. By then, even Democrats were joining the chorus of critics demanding that he quit, and when President Obama invited him to the White House on Friday morning, he knew it was for more than a cup of coffee without cream and sugar.

His critics, most of them Republicans, sympathized with the impossibility of his job, but the quality of mercy in an election year is strained through a very fine filter. “Accountability is a hard thing to come by in Washington,” Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader in the House (suddenly feeling the hot breath of pursuers in the last week of a primary campaign), said in the wake of the sacking. “Bureaucratic government mazes have grown too big to manage, making it near impossible to root out incompetence . The job of the Veterans Administration, after all, is to care for our veterans, many returning from long stretches of war and in need of urgent medical attention. There are few causes that should unite us more, regardless of party or politics. And there are few departments that demand greater accountability.”

Mr. Shinseki, who retired as a four-star general and had served as the chief of staff of the Army, learned what generals before him learned; namely, that politics is not a military art. President Eisenhower, who had presided over the miracle of D-Day and the conquest of the Nazis, once complained that, in the Army, once he gave an order, he could expect it to be obeyed. Once in the White House, he gave an order, and sometimes it was disobeyed or ignored, and he could never find out why, or by whom.

Cleaning house at Veterans Affairs is a job just begun. Friday was an interesting day, in fact. The president also took the resignation of Jay Carney, his press secretary, who said he wanted to spend more time with his family, which might even be true. A roll call of familiar Republican names in the Senate — Rubio, Inhofe, Vitter, Thune, Brown — lined up to warn the president that sacking Mr. Shinseki was only “the first step.”

The nation owes the veterans a debt for their service, much of it above and beyond the call of duty, beginning with the tender care of bodies cheerfully put on the line in the defense of the country. Mr. Shinseki, a good man who served his country well, learned the meaning of “unacceptable.” Now others, in Congress and at the White House, will learn it, too.

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