I’m riveted by the drama in my own statehouse, where Governor John Kitzhaber seems to be considering (and reconsidering) whether to resign while allegations mount that his partner, Cylvia Hayes, traded on her position as First Lady for personal and professional gain. (Hayes and Kitzhaber both face media charges, as well, that she influenced state policy while being paid to support certain ideas/issues). I’m a fan of the governor’s, and I’m particularly interested to see that elected state Democrats seem sad about the situation. It tells you about their expectations for Kitzhaber’s fourth term: they expected more, and they seem to still feel that he has more to give. There’s also a sense that this is a terrible way to end a storied and worthy career. We mourn for not just what might have been but also what this scandal will do to what has been — devalue decades of public service.
I’m curious about this now because resignations, suspensions, and retirements are all over the news. Outside of Oregon, Brian Williams is finding himself without an anchor’s desk at NBC, and Jon Stewart has announced plans to leave “The Daily Show” later this year. How do you know when it’s time to move on?
In Williams’s case and Kitzhaber’s, it seems like that the decision to resign will not be entirely an individual choice. Kitzhaber will have to resign if he loses the confidence of the legislature (ok, technically, that’s not true, but practically, it might be), and if criminal charges seem likely against either Hayes or Kitzhaber, I can’t imagine he’ll stay at the state’s helm.
Williams, I suspect, will cling to his position, if not his actual job, for as long as possible. His suspension won’t preclude him from popping up on camera in the future. In fact, I won’t be surprised when we see Brian Williams, on-the-ground reporter, turning in strictly monitored, factually accurate pieces come October.
But would it be better if he quit? Will things be improved by Kitzhaber’s resignation? I don’t know. I doubt they know. There should be a guide or a checklist, something where you can select “criteria under which my career is effectively over,” that you sign before taking on a big position, like a Living Will for My Career. For most journalists, it seems that line is “I’ve become the story.” Williams, though, who has been an entertainment figure beyond his news-reading workday, has already blurred that line, so it’s hard to know what his criterion might be.
Most politicians who resign in disgrace include the idea that the surrounding scandal has become too much of a distraction to allow them to serve to their fullest abilities. I believe it’s absolutely possible that this is true, and I think it also rarely matters. In the short-term, sure, maybe your power is reduced by how little anyone wants to sit at your lunch table, but in the long-term, everyone still needs your vote or your signature to get things done. Plus, I believe that a person who rises to a position like Williams’s or Kitzhaber’s is probably a work-a-holic, someone who finds comfort and identity in the tasks and requirements. That’s a person (like Bill Clinton, for instance) who will be hyper-focused by scandal. There’s an argument to be made that these types of leaders perform better work when they’re under close scrutiny like this.
Can we make that argument about Kitzhaber? I don’t know, but I’m riveted.