On Monday, August 23 at 11:59 PM, embattled Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo officially resigned from his position after months of controversy and scandal. Cuomo’s meteoric rise in national prominence during the early stages of the pandemic took place at the same time his office was covering up COVID-19 cases in nursing homes. Over the subsequent months, Cuomo’s ego and hubris were on full display as he authored a book about leadership at the height of the pandemic while people were dying in his state from an emergency he mishandled, and then reports surfaced of long-time inappropriate behavior toward female staff members. Even after multiple national figures of both political parties called on his resignation, Cuomo stubbornly refused to give up power and appointed an independent investigation to look into the accusations. Ultimately, the investigation concluded exactly what everyone predicted, which was that Cuomo had routinely harassed female staff and violated state and federal laws in the process. Rarely has there ever been a more universally celebrated resignation of a political official. Republicans are elated that the mainstream media’s COVID poster boy is finally getting his comeuppance while Democrats are ecstatic this walking gaffe machine is finally exiting stage left to avoid continued embarrassment.
Cuomo’s resignation also prompts us to reflect on the nature and scope of political resignations throughout our nation’s history. One of the great benefits of living in such a robust democracy is that the public frequently can vote people out of office before they have an opportunity to resign. However, there are several tentpole moments and resignations that stand out as significant for a variety of reasons. Below are the five most important (or significant) political resignations in the history of the United States.
5. Larry Craig (Senator R-ID)
Larry Craig’s intent to resign following a guilty plea to disorderly conduct for his behavior in a Minneapolis restroom did not shift the potential balance of power in the country or change the course of history. It did, however, signify a new type of scandal during the social media age that combined hypocrisy, sexuality, and taboos. Prior to 2007, Larry Craig was a rather non-descript Republican senator from Idaho, but that all changed when he was arrested at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport for attempting to solicit sexual activity from an undercover male police officer in a bathroom stall. During the encounter with the undercover officer, Craig reportedly kept tapping his foot closer and closer to the foot of the officer in the stall next to him and repeatedly reached his hand under the stall, which were all signs for soliciting lewd behavior. While Craig’s defense of having a “wide stance” when using the bathroom would routinely be mocked, it was no laughing matter that Craig was another, in a long line, of anti-gay politicians who were caught engaging in homosexual activity. Shortly after his arrest became public, Craig announced his intent to resign, but reversed course several weeks later, despite having all of his committee memberships stripped. He served out the remainder of his term and was later found guilty of improperly using campaign funds to pay for his attorney for the case. While Craig might not have officially resigned, his resignation speech and scandal set the table for what we come to expect in the internet age.
4. Martin Van Buren (Secretary of State) and John Eaton (Secretary of War)
The resignations of Van Buren and Eaton capped what may have been the biggest scandal in early American political history that largely incapacitated the cabinet of President Andrew Jackson. What ended up becoming known as the Petticoat Affair, all started because Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, disapproved of the manner in which Secretary of War John Eaton and his wife, Peggy O’Neill Eaton, were married. Without getting into too many details, Peggy O’Neill may not have been entirely unencumbered from her previous husband at the time she and Eaton married. While this might not seem like much of an issue now, at the time when social mores were much more rigid, this was a massive scandal, which only gained more traction as Floride Calhoun and the other wives of other Jackson cabinet officials ostracized Peggy O’Neill Eaton, which angered Jackson so greatly that he dismissed half of his cabinet. Van Buren and Eaton resigned to serve on Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet” which was the name given to a group of informal advisors Jackson met and strategized with throughout the rest of his presidency. The cabinet shakeup paved the way for Martin Van Buren to assume the presidency after Jackson’s second term and shifted the social scene in Washington.
3. Jefferson Davis (Senator D-MS)
Nearly every southern elected official resigned from his position following the secession of southern states at the outset of the American Civil War. What lands Davis on the list is ultimately about what happened after his resignation. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Davis was one of 13 senators who attempted to seek compromise in order to avoid a war, but once his home state of Mississippi left the union, Davis delivered his closing remarks on the Senate floor, wished his colleagues well, and bid them adieu. Eleven months later, in November of 1861, Davis was elected as the president of the Confederate States of America. While the country has been grappling with how to properly recognize our troubled history, the legacy of Jefferson Davis is a fascinating one since he was largely reviled by southerners during the war for not being cold, disconnected, and detached from the cause. The reality was Davis was one of the few southern leaders who realized very early on in the war that their cause was ultimately doomed and simply played the hand he was dealt as best he could. His capture, imprisonment, and time in exile after the Civil War have largely been subject to falsehoods, but he remains the only man to have resigned his position in the senate of one government to become the president of another.
2. #MeToo Resignations (2018)
Perhaps no resignations speak more directly to the Cuomo scandal than the spate that took place throughout 2018 in the wake of the #MeToo Movement. For years, sexual harassment (and worse) in Washington, DC was well-known, tolerated, and even celebrated in some circles. However, the #MeToo social movement may have impacted our nation’s capital more than any other sector as thousands of women started to come forward to share stories of inappropriate advances, sexual harassment, and abuse by the very people we had elected to protect our rights and liberties. In total, nine members of Congress (eight representatives and one senator) resigned due to inappropriate behavior, harassment, bribery, and other ethical violations. The resignations were bipartisan with five Republicans and four Democrats stepping down and even crossed gender lines as one female representative resigned because she let her chief of staff stay in the position after knowing he had threatened to kill a woman he had dated. The resignations stood in stark contrast to the events just two years earlier when over two dozen women made allegations against Donald Trump while he was running for office only to see him elected as President of the United States just a few months later. As evidenced by Cuomo’s scandal, bad behavior still takes place in politics, but the #MeToo movement and subsequent resignations signified a new era in which elected officials were held accountable.
1. Richard Nixon (President of the United States)
Nixon will always be the most significant resignation in our nation’s history due to the stature of his office and the unprecedented nature of his crimes. He was elected and re-elected by massive margins and accomplished more than most presidents such as securing the passage of Title IX and the development of the Environmental Protection Agency; however, his insecurities and distrust ultimately got the better of him. His repeated attempts to obstruct justice regarding his authorization of the 1972 break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building led to his eventual resignation. The sad part was that the break-in was completely unnecessary as Nixon was going to trounce Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern with, or without, the help of information illegally secured from the DNC. While Nixon’s resignation did save the country a more prolonged impeachment process, it still delved the country into an era of government distrust that still exists today. Setting aside political differences, the public never viewed elected officials with the same level of trust again. Interestingly, Nixon’s first Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, also resigned from office roughly a year earlier. People of a certain age likely think the two resignations were linked, but they were not. Agnew resigned due to the rather banal charges of bribery, extortion, and tax fraud.
In time we will see whether Andrew Cuomo’s legacy is worthy of entering such a dubious list or whether he is simply a footnote in history. Some resignations shake the country to the core while others are barely remembered. Some believe that resignations erode public trust in institutions and elected officials, but should it? Aren’t most resignations recognition that someone is being held accountable for their actions? The fact we still have mechanisms by which people in power are held accountable a fundamentally good thing for the country and our democracy.