(updated below - Update II - Update III)
From the obituary of Jerald terHorst, who died yesterday:
Jerald terHorst, who resigned as President Gerald Ford's press secretary just 30 days after taking the job because of the pardon Ford granted former President Richard Nixon, has died of congestive heart failure, his son said Thursday. . . .
In 1974, terHorst became press secretary after Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal and Ford succeeded him as president on August 9, 1974.
On September 8, Ford granted Nixon an unconditional pardon, and terHorst tendered his resignation the same day.
"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," terHorst wrote in his resignation letter, dated September 8, 1974.
"These are also men whose reputations and families have been grievously injured," the letter continued. "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."
In 1975, the American Society of Journalists and Authors named terHorst the first winner of its annual Conscience in Media Award.
It's virtually impossible to imagine anyone undertaking an act like this in contemporary Washington. Indeed, the principle in which his resignation was grounded -- that the highest political elites should be held to the same standards as ordinary Americans when it comes to breaking the law -- is one of the most widely mocked and explicitly rejected ideas in our current political culture (Look Forward, Not Backward -- for Elite Crimes). Beyond that, anyone who sacrificed a position of political power, and did so based on an announced principle, would be derided by our power-worshiping political media as UnSerious, UnSavvy, and an overly earnest loser. A decade of government radicalism and lawbreaking that included torture, aggressive war, indefinite detentions, and illegal domestic surveillance did not generate a single resignation of this kind. We had a handful of truly brave whistle-blowers, but other than that, the most that happened was that officials were willing to reveal and condemn the corruption in which they actively participated -- only long after it happened and once they needed a way to sell a book and rehabilitate their reputation.
Then again, it's virtually impossible to imagine Richard Nixon being forced to resign in today's political culture. After all, a federal court just ruled that the prior President violated the criminal law in how he spied for years on American citizens, while the current administration did everything possible to shield those crimes from judicial review (by claiming they were "state secrets"), and it barely caused a ripple.
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Related to all of this: I was on Brian Lehrer's television show Tuesday night discussing the War on WikiLeaks which I wrote about last weekend, as well as the vital role whistle-blowers and leakers now play. Also in that discussion was John Young, the founder of Cryptome.org, a site not unlike WikiLeaks which is devoted to exposing government and corporate secrets. Most of what I had to say will be familiar to those who read what I wrote on Saturday, but Young is clearly very knowledgeable about secrecy and (without my endorsing them all) had some very interesting observations. The segment can be seen here or in .mov format here.
UPDATE: Jon Eisenberg, the lawyer who successfully represented the plaintiffs in the Al Haramain decision, where the court found the Bush NSA domestic spying program to be illegal, compares the conduct of the Bush DOJ and the Obama DOJ in trying to shield this lawbreaking from accountability. Eisenberg's assessment tracks what the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which litigates numerous cases on behalf of those illegally spied upon by the Government, previously said about the same issue. I don't necessarily adopt that perspective -- with a couple exceptions, I'd say "equal" is more accurate than "worse" -- but it's telling that those most closely involved in these matters see things the way they do.
UPDATE II: During the Bush years, there were a couple mid-level resignations in protest over the core unfairness of the military commissions system -- notably from members of the U.S. military who apparently took concepts of "honor" seriously. Col. Morris Davis, once the chief prosecutor for (and an ardent defender of) Bush's military commissions, resigned in protest over pressure he said was being exerted to produce convictions (h/t RussellM), while Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, originally assigned to prosecute teenager and Guantanamo detainee Mohamed Jawad for war crimes, resigned once he became convinced of his innocence and became his chief defender. Also, Alberto Mora resigned as General Counsel of the Department of Navy in protest over the torture regime. So it's an over-statement to say that this never happens now, but it's exceedingly rare and there's certainly nothing comparable to a high-level political official like terHorst doing so.
UPDATE III: Another example similar to the ones in the prior update is the recent resignation of former Marine Capt. Matthew Hoh in protest over the futility of the war in Afghanistan (h/t Publican). It is interesting that such conscience resignations occur among mid-level current and former military members, but not among the political class.