Aide's bitter departure breaks unwritten rule

ON POLITICS

February 17, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It's kind of an unwritten rule hereabouts that if you leave a high-profile public job, you go quietly, and with a bouquet from your boss as you go out the door.

That is, no matter why you depart, the standard operating procedure is for the real reason to be sugarcoated so that nobody's reputation is unduly tarnished, neither the kicker nor the kickee.

When Les Aspin was given his walking papers as secretary of defense, for example, his departure was officially cast as a mutual decision. President Clinton fulsomely praised his contributions in the job and expressed the hope he would be available for another government post -- which hasn't turned up yet.

Just the other day, Adm. Frank B. Kelso, the chief of naval operations, announced his early retirement with Secretary of Defense William Perry praising him "as a man of the highest integrity and honor." At the same time, Secretary of the Navy John Dalton issued a statement observing that Kelso "has acted, as he has throughout his 38-year career, with the best interests of the United States Navy in mind."

All this would sound very routine if it were not for the fact that last year Dalton decided to dismiss Kelso for having failed to prevent the notorious Tailhook sexual harassment scandal, only to be overridden by Aspin. The early retirement, in fact, was orchestrated to short-circuit a possible further inquiry against Kelso, accused by a Navy judge of having lied in saying he had not witnessed any of the hi-jinks at the 1991 convention.

Contrast this departure with that of Philip Heymann, who recently left his job as deputy attorney general, the No. 2 post in the Justice Department, in a rather unique press conference with his boss, Attorney General Janet Reno. They mutually agreed out front that they didn't see eye-to-eye on how the department was to be run. And on the day Kelso and Perry were going through their carefully engineered parting, Heymann met with reporters and unloaded on the Clinton administration's crime bill, supported by Reno.

He accused the administration he had just left, and Congress, of letting the political tail wag the policy dog in endorsing a number of glitzy proposals that he said were designed more to win votes from an electorate in a frenzy over violent crime than to deal effectively with such crime. He pointedly poked holes in the administration call for life sentences for three-time perpetrators of violent crime, for mandatory minimum sentences and for the construction of new regional prisons.

Heymann's observations were particularly embarrassing to Reno, who before the administration adopted these proposals had expressed some of the same criticisms, but has since become a loyal team player. Heymann is said to have voiced these positions openly when he was in the department, but other Justice officials insist they weren't the cause of his departure. At any rate, publicly taking issue with his former employers' views on fighting crime is distinctly out of keeping with the tradition of going quietly.

There have been other occasions in the Clinton administration when officials have quit and gone out the door griping, but they have usually been low-profile types. Three young State Department toilers who dealt with affairs in Bosnia left last year in vocal protest over the administration's uncertain policy in that trouble spot.

The last time a key Cabinet official quit in a truly major policy difference was in 1980 when then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned in the wake of President Jimmy Carter's failed attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran. Vance disagreed with the decision to seek the rescue but stayed on until after it went forward, and pretty much avoided I-told-you-sos afterward.

There are those who will argue that the Kelso manner of departure is better -- not only for the individual involved but for the country as well -- than the Heymann experience of taking a parting shot on the way out. But it can't be denied that the administration push for anti-crime legislation involves a particularly heavy dose of grandstanding as this Democratic president seeks to rid his party of the soft-on-crime label.

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