Principled Resignations

Last Friday, Donald Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, resigned after six months on the job. By all accounts, his decision rested on Trump's hiring of a new communication's director, Anthony Scaramucci. Reports indicate that Spicer felt his new boss was fundamentally unfit for the job and he could not serve under him. While there are other, less generous explanations out there, it appears that Spicer's resignation comes down to principles. Even people who seem willing to put up with great public embarrassment have lines they refuse to cross. 

Which brings me to one of the more remarkable principled resignations in presidential history. Back in 1974, newly inaugurated President Gerald Ford faced an agonizing decision regarding his predecessor, the disgraced Richard Nixon. He could allow Nixon to go through a painful, public trial or he could pardon him and, he hoped, put the whole affair to rest. This was a no-win situation. If he allowed Nixon to be prosecuted, it would be a drawn-out process that would dominate every news cycle for months, if not years. But if he pardoned his former boss, he faced the perception that there had been some kind of deal to give Ford the presidency, a quid pro quo that would undermine the new President's ability to move his agenda forward. Faced with this impossible decision, Ford decided that the only option was a pardon that would allow the nation to begin the healing process. 

Ford announcing the Nixon pardon. 

Ford announcing the Nixon pardon. 

The reaction to the pardon was swift and harshly critical. Of all the critiques, however, none was as devastating as the resignation letter of his press secretary, Jerald terHorst. An old friend of the President's, he served a single month and had spent that time denying that Ford was going to pardon the former president. When he learned of Ford's decision, he felt that the had no choice and handed in a resignation letter that serves as a remarkable statement of principle running up against decades of friendship. 

Jerald terHorst

Jerald terHorst

In order to capture the letter's power, I will quote it in its entirety: 

September 8, 1974

Dear Mr. President:

Without a doubt this is the most difficult decision I ever have had to make. I cannot find words to adequately express my respect and admiration for you over the many years of our friendship and my belief that you could heal the wounds and serve our country in this most critical time in our nation’s history. Words also cannot convey my appreciation for the opportunity to serve on your staff during the transitional days of your presidency and for the confidence and faith you placed in me in that regard. The Press Office has been restructured along professional lines. Its staff, from Deputy Press Secretary John W. Hushen down the line, is competent and dedicated and comprises loyal employees who have given unstintingly of their time and talents.

So it is with great regret, after long soul-searching, that I must inform you that I cannot in good conscience support your decision to pardon former President Nixon even before he has been charged with the commission of any crime. As your spokesman, I do not know how I could credibly defend that action in the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience and the absence of pardons for former aides and associates of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes - and imprisoned - stemming from the same Watergate situation. These are also men whose reputations and families have been grievously injured. Try as I can, it is impossible to conclude that the former President is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national wellbeing.

Thus it is with a heavy heart that I hereby tender my resignation as Press Secretary to the President, effective today. My prayers nonetheless remain with you, sir.


Jerald F. terHorst

It's not often that we see such clear and undeniable statements of principle in Washington politics, and I'm glad that Sean Spicer's resgination gives us the opportunity to revisit this moment.