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Jules Witcover: On presidential firings [Commentary]

President Obama's firing of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, transparently dressed up as a resignation under congressional pressure, seemed somehow out of character for a chief executive known for patience and dislike of wielding the knife.

The retired Army general and Vietnam combat veteran had matched Mr. Obama's own style of cautious deliberation in coping with the VA scandal that left thousands of patients waiting interminable months for medical treatment, some even dying while they waited.

Mr. Shinseki's congressional testimony that he was "mad as hell" about the backlog and delays, delivered too calmly for many legislators' ears, intensified the demand for his scalp. Up to then, he had been a hero among anti-war liberals for accurately warning before the 2003 Iraq invasion that it would take "hundreds of thousands" of U.S. troops to cope with the aftermath.

But after much praise from Mr. Obama and indications of support, the president buckled in the face of the clamor to dump Mr. Shinseki. He cited the secretary's judgment that staying in the job would have been a "distraction," and said he reluctantly agreed with it.

In the annals of presidential profiles in courage, it was not Mr. Obama's finest hour. Only recently he had stood behind his health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, during the worst of the Obamacare rollout storm, accepting her resignation only afterward. Mr. Obama's attitude then was in keeping with a long history of presidents' reluctance to tie a can to loyal subordinates. More often than not, predecessors have assigned the execution to an aide rather than enduring a distasteful face-to-face dismissal.

Perhaps the most reprehensible example came in 1944, when Franklin D. Roosevelt privately "encouraged" his vice president, Henry Wallace, to seek renomination. Meanwhile, he yielded to his political advisers' persuasions and greased the path for Sen. Harry Truman as his next running mate. In 1945, however, the re-elected FDR made Wallace his secretary of commerce, but when his pro-Soviet Union views troubled the president, he asked for and got Wallace's "resignation."

In 1967, Lyndon Johnson learned that his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, had concluded the Vietnam War could not be won. LBJ gave him an out and soft landing, nominating him to head the World Bank.

In 1973, amid the Watergate scandal, when Richard Nixon fired White House counsel John Dean and accepted the "resignations" of closest aides Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman and of Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, he instructed others to break the news to them.

Later that year, Vice President Spiro Agnew balked at resigning as he faced likely indictment on allegations of accepting payoffs as governor of Maryland. Nixon sent aide Bryce Harlow and White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig to tell Agnew he wanted him to "make a statesmanlike decision" to resign.

Agnew later wrote dramatically that they "brought the traditional suicide pistol and laid it on my desk." He still refused to step down, demanding a personal meeting with Nixon, who again waffled. Agnew finally submitted his resignation as part of a deal to escape jail time.

Only 11 days later, Nixon did order Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, whose investigation was imperiling his presidency. Richardson refused, as did his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, both men themselves resigning. The solicitor general at the time, Robert Bork, did the dirty work on Cox, and Nixon appointed Leon Jaworski to replace him. Jaworski picked up the investigation, which ended in 1975 with Nixon's own resignation.

In 1979 in the midst of a national energy crisis, Jimmy Carter signaled a fresh start in his troubled presidency by calling in resignations from 34 cabinet and sub-cabinet officers. He thus avoided direct confrontations, finally accepting five. The move only triggered more public questions about his leadership, and he was easily defeated for re-election by Ronald Reagan the next year.

In 1985, a major shakeup took place under Reagan, but he merely acquiesced in it. White House Chief of Staff James Baker proposed to Treasury Secretary Donald Regan that they exchange jobs. Regan agreed and Reagan, who personally abhorred firing anybody, happily accepted the deal. So much for presidential leadership!

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book 
is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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