Politics & Policy


VA secretary Erik Shinseki (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
What to do about the VA scandal

The Operative: You know, in certain older civilized cultures, when men failed as entirely as you have, they would throw themselves on their swords.

Dr. Mathias: Well, unfortunately, I forgot to bring a sword.

The Operative (producing a sword): Would you be killed in your sleep, like an ailing pet?

— Serenity, 2005

Christian civilization recoils from suicide, but a sneaking admiration for it creeps in for the Romans, the virtuous deaths of Cato and Seneca, and for the ancient Japanese practice, not because the act itself is necessarily admirable, but because the motive is. There are worse maxims than “Death Before Dishonor.”

I do not think that General Eric Shinseki should fall on a literal sword, but he already is overdue for the metaphorical one. There is recent precedent: In the Czech Republic, the entire government stepped down over a relatively picayune corruption scandal in which politicians bought off potential opponents with government jobs; in Turkey, senior ministers resigned after a similar scandal, though the prime minister resisted calls for his resignation; the prime minister of Luxembourg, Europe’s longest-serving leader, announced his resignation when it was revealed that his spy agencies were misbehaving; the governor of Tokyo stepped down over a dodgy loan from a hospital operator; etc. These are premiers and heads of parliamentary governments and senior leaders; what’s an obscure cabinet secretary by comparison?

The emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius once observed that if a man knew for certain that he would die the next day, or the day after that, he would care very much about which day it was to be, the difference being so slight, only if were among the most abject and degraded of souls. General Shinseki has nothing in front of him but degradation; a less abject man would already have resigned in acknowledgement of his own failure to meet his responsibilities and as a gesture of atonement to the nation he failed. Clinging to his position at this point can be a source of nothing other than shame. He is on his way out — why not leave with some honor?

I wrote in passing yesterday that if President Obama or the people of this country had any self-respect, he’d resign over the scandal of the Veterans Affairs hospitals, which needlessly sentenced an unknown number of American veterans to death through their combination of managerial incompetence, medical malpractice, and monstrously cruel indifference to their clients. Other heads of government have resigned for less. President Obama presented himself to the public as an authority in the field of health-care management and as an executive who not only would insist upon but also would in fact achieve the highest standards in transparent, honest, competent government. He has failed, comprehensively. An honest man acknowledges his failures.

Perhaps it is the case that he did not know how bad things were in the VA system. Set aside the question of whether he should have known, for instance by finding the time to take the occasional meeting with General Shinseki, a task the president had not undertaken in more than two years. Sitting behind the Resolute desk means taking responsibility for the totality of the executive branch of the U.S. government, which includes a great many things that are outside of one’s immediate knowledge or control.

We are all familiar with the flip side of that: Every time business picks up at a paper-plate factory in Sheboygan, the president attempts to seize credit for the three jobs therein created. If you had attended the 2012 Democratic convention, you’d have thought that Barack Obama personally pulled the trigger on Osama bin Laden and had donned green eyeshades to turn around the financial affairs of General Motors. Strangely, after having bragged about saving GM, the Obama administration wishes to accept no responsibility for the deadly, possibly criminal, and certainly negligent actions of that firm during a period in which the U.S. government was its principal shareholder. Who knows how many people are dead or injured because GM refused to improve faulty switches? Who knows how many veterans are dead because of the VA?

If you want credit for the happy unexpected consequences of every snail hiccup across the fruited plains, then you have to take responsibility for the actions of your government — the things that are, after all, directly your responsibility.

President Obama clings to his sad little throne even more desperately than does General Shinseki. Faced with evidence of the incompetence of his administration, the president pronounced himself outraged, vowed that he would not tolerate it, would not stand for it — he in fact did everything except take responsibility for the actions of his government. The dishonesty and malpractice he vowed never to tolerate were, after all, the actions of his own administration, and the fact that they (may have) happened at some degree of separation from his own sacred person is hardly a defense. We made the head of the VA a cabinet-level position in order that the secretary might report directly to the president. The president, however, must be paying attention. President Obama was not.

It may not be fair, exactly, but one aspect of big-time leadership is that one must bear responsibility even for that which is not necessarily one’s fault. The responsibilities of the presidency did not descend upon an unsuspecting Barack Obama while he was going about his own inexplicable business in Chicago; he sought the office, twice, offering promises about what kind of a man he is, and what kind of leader — and he has failed to deliver. My friend and colleague Andrew C. McCarthy has just written the book Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment, and it isn’t quite what you’re probably expecting. (Chapter 1 bears the straightforward title: “We Don’t Have the Votes.”) Mr. McCarthy argues that there is a very strong legal case for removing the president, but that this is beside the point: Unless there is a political case, and political will, then the law is toothless, because impeachment is a political process.

Mr. McCarthy’s argument is a compelling one. Americans voted for those dead veterans, regardless of whether they understood that they were doing so, and they’d do it again. If there were a way for them to resign, it would be the honorable thing to do.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


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