When Resigning Office Is the Honorable Thing to Do

A year before his term as Air Force chief of staff was to end, Gen. Ronald Fogleman resigned in a dispute with Defense Secretary William Cohen over assigning blame for the terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia.

On the same day, Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts announced he was resigning to pursue the ambassadorship to Mexico that chairman Jesse Helms of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has vowed Mr. Weld will never have.

What struck me about these two voluntary departures from office is how rarely it happens in this country. Resignation on principle is much more a tradition in European countries with parliamentary systems, where the cry of "resign! resign!" is often raised during debate, and where stepping down is considered to be a quite honorable thing to do.

Anthony Eden's career in Britain can be said to have taken off in 1938, when he resigned from Neville Chamberlain's Cabinet in protest of its appeasement policy. Writing of the resignation, Winston Churchill said, "my heart sank, and for a while the dark waters of despair overwhelmed me." But with the outbreak of war in 1939, Eden - and Churchill - were brought into the Cabinet. And Eden became prime minister in his own right.

In this country, you can count major, principled resignations on the fingers of one hand. There were Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. They resigned in 1973 rather than carry out President Nixon's order to fire Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. There was Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who resigned in 1980 because he disagreed with what turned out to be the tragic mission that President Carter ordered to rescue the American embassy hostages in Iran. And there was Bob Dole, who resigned from the Senate in 1996 with a graceful speech, not out of protest but to become a full-time presidential candidate.

Often resignation is in protest. But in our country a more common form of protest than resigning is leaking. Word would seep out that President Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was trying to save the country from the benighted policies of Secretary of State William Rogers, whom he eventually replaced. We learned that Labor Secretary Robert Reich went through hell in the Clinton Cabinet, but stuck it out until he could retire and write his tell-all - or maybe more than all - recollections.

I don't know where General Fogleman, the first chief ever to resign before the end of his term, will go from here. Or where ex-Governor Weld will go, if not to Mexico. But there is something refreshing about resignation from a secure position to make a point. It's almost European.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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