Steve Scalise and the Lost Art of Honorable Resignation


The crisis surrounding Rep. Steve Scalise’s alleged speech to a white supremacist conference in 2002 has continued, even as new evidence has emerged that he merely spoke to a citizens’ group in the same building, not to the conference itself. That is because Scalise’s ties to Kenny Knight and others close to former Ku Klux Klan official David Duke have not been refuted, whether or not he spoke to Duke’s gathering. Scalise could have ended the crisis by stepping aside as Majority Whip, but decided not to do so.

The honorable resignation is a lost art in American politics. Most politicians are determined to cling to power, regardless of the cost to their reputation, their party’s standing, or their broader ideals. Typically, they have to be forced out before they will go. That reinforces the idea that resignation is tainted by wrongdoing. In fact, there are often good reasons for politicians to resign, and many emerge stronger for it. The gesture of resignation is common in Britain, for example. Yet few dare resign in the U.S.

There are a few exceptions. Sarah Palin resigned from the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2004 in a protest against her own party’s corruption. Republican leaders were happy to see her go–but her resignation only cemented her image among Alaskans as a principled leader. She was elected to governor soon afterward, and became a national figure. On the left, Robert Reich resigned as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor in protest against welfare reform. He was wrong on the issue, but established his unique place as a principled voice on the American left, and became more widely known, rather than fading.

Scalise could have resigned with dignity, affirming the principle that even fleeting association with racism and antisemitism will not be tolerated in the Republican Party. He could, at the very least, have stepped aside pending a full investigation. But he did not–and the party leadership ended that possibility by defending him. An opportunity to restore Congress’s honor has been lost.

Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the new ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.

Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelpollak