“The Sunday Political Brunch” by ABC6 Chief Political Reporter Mark Curtis

by ABC6 Chief Political Reporter Mark Curtis  

mcurtis@abc6.com  or @markcurtisABC6 on Twitter!

Dr. Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is Chief Political Reporter for WLNE-TV ABC6 Providence and a Political Analyst for KGO Radio 810-AM San Francisco.

(Providence, Rhode Island) – The resignation of Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki did not come as a big surprise on Friday. Over 100 Members of Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – had called for him to step down, and when you get squeezed by both parties, it’s usually time to go. It made me think about Cabinet resignations of the past – some with scandal; some not – so General Shinseki is hardly breaking new ground here. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:    

“On the Road Again” – The Veterans Administration is a mess; a disgrace of backlogged medical appointments for those who served this country bravely and bear the physical and mental consequences. To portray Shinseki as anti-Veteran is foolish. He was a decorated and wounded combat veteran and Four-Star General who served three Presidents – Clinton, Bush II and Obama. But being a General is one thing; having to serve as a politically charged Cabinet Secretary is quite another. Yes, the problems pre-dated him, but they weren’t getting them fixed under his tenure either. Success in politics (and public policy) – like many endeavors – is about results.  

“The Butz of Many Jokes” – Perhaps the most infamous Cabinet resignation was that of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz who served in the Nixon and Ford Administrations (photo above). Butz had a habit of putting his foot in his mouth. In 1976 Butz was on a flight to the Republican National Convention when he made a joke about – and I am heavily censoring here – various anatomical attributes of African-Americans. Butz had previously mocked the Pope’s position on birth control with a faux Italian accent saying, “He no playa the game, he no maka the rules.” Between the two outbursts, his resignation was a fate acompli.  

“Watt Did he Say?” – You’d think maybe the Republicans would have learned a lesson from Earl Butz – don’t make off color jokes within earshot of others – especially reporters. But just seven years after the Butz scandal, Interior Secretary James Watt said of an environmental committee he had assembled, “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.” His resignation came a short time later. Watt had previous criticized the Fourth of July concert performers on the National Mall – the Beach Boys and the Grass Roots – for “attracting the wrong element” with drugs and alcohol. Whoops – the Beach Boys were friends of President Reagan and Vice President Bush. Watt was out!  

“Oh, Doctor!” – Technically speaking, the U.S. Surgeon General is not a Cabinet post, but given its prominence in controversial public health debates; it might as well be. The job and the doctor are usually big headline makers, given the stature and respect of Drs. Luther Terry and C. Everett Koop. In December 1994 Dr. Jocelyn Elders suggested that – and I will put this gingerly – self-stimulation might be a good form of birth control, saying, “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.” President Bill Clinton had been a longtime friend and ally of Dr Elders, since his days of supporting her as Arkansas Director of Health. But, his patience ran out. Her resignation was swift and certain.  

“Life or Death!” – Sometimes it’s a social controversy that ensnares a Cabinet member; other times it is a grave public policy decision. In 1980 President Carter authorized an attempted rescue mission of the hostages in Iran. The plan failed badly when a military helicopter crashed in the desert and eight were killed. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance – who strongly questioned the rescue mission — abruptly resigned. That kind of headline doesn’t help an incumbent in an election year. Six months later, President Carter was voted out of office in a one of the worst landslide defeats in American history.  

“Why All This Matters?” – Being a Cabinet Secretary is a huge honor, and a huge responsibility. Sometimes it is largely symbolic – with underlings doing all the work – while the Secretary is there for political loyalty. But, there is a Golden Rule of the Presidential Cabinet – never make the boss look bad. Look, Eric Shinseki is an American war hero and a decorated solider (not to mention degrees from West Point and Duke). Earl Butz – despite his tasteless jokes – was considered one of the foremost authorities on American agriculture (with a degree from Purdue). But the sun shines only on one person (or the black cloud hovers above him), and that person is the President. If you make him look bad, chances are you’re gone!    

What do you think? Do you have a favorite story about a failed Cabinet member? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtuisMedia.com.   

© 2014, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.   

Photo courtesy: White House Archives