For we may well be guided by those fundamental principles of justice which I laid down at the outset: first, that no harm be done to anyone; second, that the common interests be conserved. When these are modified under changed circumstances, moral duty also undergoes a change, and it does not always remain the same. For a given promise or agreement may turn out in such a way that its performance will prove detrimental either to the one to whom the promise has been made or to the one who has made it.
– Cicero, De Officiis I. x.
In the speech announcing her decision to resign as Alaska’s governor, Sarah Palin made an argument that tracks with Cicero reasoning as to the requirements of moral duty. This was entirely appropriate. Though officeholders are inclined to forget its derivation, the word “office” has its root in the Latin word from which Cicero’s treatise on duty takes its name. Someone who takes an office undertakes a duty. The oath of office is the public and solemn vow to fulfill that duty.
Palin argues that the circumstances of her promise changed because others practiced “the politics of personal destruction” after “August 29th last year – the day John McCain tapped me to be his running mate … . The ethics law I championed became their weapon of choice … all of the ethics complaints have been dismissed. We’ve won! But it hasn’t been cheap – the state has wasted thousands of hours of your time and shelled out some two million of your dollars to respond to “opposition research”… . And what about the people who offer up these silly accusations? It doesn’t cost them a dime so they’re not going to stop draining public resources … .”
It appears that the main reason for Palin’s decision is her opponents’ politically motivated abuse of a law she advocated. Would it be uncharitable to question the wisdom of a law that “silly people” can readily abuse as a political weapon? Why did Palin champion this law when it apparently contains no safeguards against such abuse? Does the lynch pin of the argument she uses to justify her resignation therefore raise serious questions about her judgment and common sense?
In her speech, Sarah Palin refers to a “recent trip to Kosovo and Landstuhl, to visit our wounded soldiers overseas” and “what we can all learn from our selfless troops … they’re bold, they don’t give up and they take a stand …” Here words are an apt reminder of what the faithful performance of duty requires. Soldiers take a stand in the very teeth of enemy fire, even though it means certain death or grievous wounds. There is a word for soldiers who quit their posts because the enemy is shooting at them. It is not intended as a compliment, especially when it’s their own bad judgment that has put them in the way of enemy fire in the first place.
Sarah Palin calls to mind our wounded soldiers in the very moment when she fails to follow their heroic example. In the process, she acknowledges that, thanks to the provision of Alaska’s taxpayers, she has successfully evaded the cost-free political attacks allowed by “the ethics law I championed.” She won! Had Custer won the battle at Little Big Horn, I doubt that anyone would have questioned the money expended for the guns and bullets required to do so. He had a duty to defend his command, especially after his own mistakes exposed it to danger.
Of course, resignation would have been in order once he acknowledged and took responsibility for those mistakes. But Sarah Palin has done no such thing. She claims Alaska is being damaged by the attacks against her, but that the fault lies entirely with the bad motives and actions of others. She says her tenure as governor has been successful; her judgments and actions sound; her record all for the good of the state and its people. But if this is true, it makes no sense to deprive the state of the governor duly elected by the people simply because bad folks attack her. In that case, resigning simply lets the (political) assassins finish their work. How can letting the duly elected governor be taken out in this way be consistent with her sworn duty to defend the state?
If she is without fault or blame, then Palin’s explanation makes no sense except as a clear dereliction of duty. She swore faithfully to perform the duties of her office. She claims to have done so. Others have abused the law to attack her. She successfully defended against them. If, as she contends, she has simply been performing her duties, her defense of herself is in fact simply a defense of her office, in the literal sense. To preserve that office with integrity is one of her duties as governor. By resigning, she fails in the performance of that duty. She encourages the “politics of personal destruction” in much the same way that allowing terrorists to succeed encourages further acts of terrorism. This cannot be good for Alaska, and it does not keep faith with the people who elected her. They rightly expected her to defend the integrity of the office, which obviously means standing firm against those who attack its occupant without good reason.
If her stated explanation makes no sense, we are forced to look for an alternative that does. Absent that, we are forced to conclude that her decision to resign is, like championing the law used to harass her, just another example of her bad statesmanship.
Unfortunately for those who promote her aspirations for higher office, it falls in the very area where Republicans are now most suspect. Last fall, G. W. Bush abandoned his free enterprise principles to usher in the drive toward socialism that now threatens to destroy our country. The last thing we need is another Republican who quits her post when push comes to shove.