Another Perspective

After the Resignation

Shinseki’s departure makes VA reform less likely.

By and 6.2.14


Last week's bipartisan chorus’s calls for Secretary Shinseki to resign showed that members of Congress would rather give tough speeches than tackle problems that began well before the Obama administration.

Take, for example, the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Hospital in 2007 when Bush was still president. After a few people resigned and the hospital closed, the media stopped covering the story. There was a “mission accomplished’ feeling. The same will likely happen with the VA hospital scandal now that Shinseki is gone.

Shortly after Shinseki's resignation was announced, both Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake tweeted that it was good for Shinseki to resign and now we can fix the problems at the VA hospitals. After “can” the operative words are likely to be “but “probably won’t.” Even though Shinseki dismissed top management at the Phoenix hospital, what about the other 41 VA facilities that had fake waiting lists? If Washington history is a guide, the scandal will slowly leave the front pages — to the great relief of President Obama. 

If the President had kept Shinseki at his post, the administration would have been forced to produce real reforms. Without public pressure from the media, there will be no progress on reforming the bureaucracy. A new person at the job will lose bureaucratic fights if the President and Congress are not fully engaged in a determined effort to change the culture at the Veterans Department.

It appears that 40 veterans died in Phoenix because of excessive waiting times. It's time to privatize the VA hospital system in order to make sure our veterans get better care. This would require a bipartisan effort probably impossible to achieve in an election year without constant media coverage of the conditions at the Veterans Administration. The President doesn’t want this scandal to hurt his party’s chances of keeping the Senate. Firing Shinseki before he had a chance to redeem himself was good politics but poor statesmanship.

Yes, Shinseki should have eventually resigned, but he had already begun the reforms and his apparent determination to continue them would have kept the media spotlight on him and his actions because he would have been held responsible for making them happen. 

Letting Shinseki go because he had not, in five years, identified the problems and begun solving them until his last week, blot out the fact that other cabinet officers made major blunders and were not fired.

For example, Attorney General Eric Holder, during his confirmation hearings, admitted he should have been more alert regarding President Clinton’s pardon of fugitive Marc Rich. He claimed he was unaware that Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, was a major Democratic Party contributor. That’s off, inasmuch as she gave $1 million dollars to Democratic candidates. Assuming this was a sincere lapse in judgment, should it not have disqualified Holder him from confirmation as Attorney General in 2009?

Another dubious campaign contribution, actually involved Shinseki’s predecessor, Togo West. Just before West was confirmed as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, he served as Army Secretary. In that job he ordered a waiver for M. Larry Lawrence to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. When Lawrence died in 1996, he was serving as U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland because he was a generous donor to the Democrats.

West authorized the waiver for burial in Arlington citing Lawrence’s service as Ambassador to Switzerland and because he was wounded in World War II while supposedly serving in the Merchant Marine. A Congressional investigation could find no confirmation that Lawrence ever served. As a result, his body was exhumed from Arlington Cemetery and sent to California for reburial.

Six months later, Togo West was confirmed as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and conclude that this was just a careless mistake. If Eric Holder and Togo West didn’t have to step aside, should Shinseki have resigned over mistakes made by people under him?

We need a bipartisan effort to fix the systemic problems at the VA. That can't happen if we pretend that firing Shinseki, by itself, was a serious solution to this scandal.

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About the Author

Peter Hannaford, who died on September 5,  was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. His most recent book, Washington Merry-Go-Round: The Drew Pearson Diaries, 1960-69, of which he is editor, has just been published.

About the Author

Robert Zapesochny is a researcher who specializes in the end of the Cold War and the future of Eastern Europe.