The Art of Quitting

By Tom Shoop

President Bush's second term is officially underway, but many key members of his first-term team are heading for the exits. In some cases, the high-level departures were voluntary, in others perhaps a little less so. Either way, the resignation letters sent by Cabinet members reveal some hidden insights about effective strategies for vacating a government position.

Thank the Little People. Appointees often come in with a jaundiced view of the bureaucracy, but they rarely exit without at least a nod to the folks on the front lines. "I am very proud of the many accomplishments achieved by the talented and committed men and women of the United States Department of Education," wrote Rod Paige in his missive. "I am especially honored to have led the dedicated men and women of the Department of State," gushed Colin Powell. But HHS' Tommy Thompson trumped them both, refusing to let his employees take a back seat to anybody. "The success achieved by your administration thus far would not have been possible without the talents and expertise of this nation's best and brightest public servants - the 67,000 men and women of the Department of Health and Human Services," he wrote.

Butter Up the Boss. Of course, it's not just about the folks on the front lines. A model resignation letter must direct much of its attention to flattering the commander in chief. Commerce Secretary Don Evans, an old friend of the president, did little else in his message. "Your stewardship of the highest office in the land has renewed the values and optimistic spirit that so characterize the American people as they turn challenges into opportunities in the 21st century," Evans wrote. "Clearly, the strength, determination and unflinching leadership you have demonstrated has been fully recognized and appreciated by the nation," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told Bush.

Brag Humbly. While attention must be paid to those at the top and the bottom, it's also important to note ("humbly" or "with humility," of course) one's own accomplishments. In this regard, some letters are more thorough than others. Thompson's lists 17 separate accomplishments in a paragraph that goes on for almost 300 words - at which point he declares, "I have attached a thorough record of our administration's accomplishments in the arenas of health and human services." One's moment of departure is not the time to be overly concerned about hyperbole. "The objective of securing Americans from crime and terror has been achieved," Attorney General John Ashcroft declared in his letter.

It's All About Management. Really. While most of the letters focus on policy achievements, it's surprising how many departing Cabinet members trumpet their management endeavors. For example, ask most observers about Paige's accomplishments, and they'd probably turn immediately to his effort to develop and implement the landmark No Child Left Behind Act. But that ranks only third on the bulleted list of achievements included in his letter. The first two? Earning three consecutive clean financial audits and winning "stellar" marks on the President's Management Agenda score card. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's letter segues directly from touting the administration's Healthy Forests Initiative to declaring that "We have improved USDA's operations and delivery of services through e-government programs."

Go Your Own Way. Some of the letters are downright flowery. "Our department takes great pride in being your Department of Compassion," Thompson wrote. An air of mystery permeates others. One can almost picture Ashcroft alone at his desk, late at night, pen in hand, scrawling, "I have handwritten this letter so its confidentiality can be maintained." Paige ended his epistle by declaring that "This is an appropriate time for me to return to Texas, where I can devote attention to a personal project," leaving it to an aide to explain later that the secretary was referring to a home improvement effort.

If nothing else works, just tell it straight. After all, when George W. Bush himself resigned from the Texas Air National Guard, he simply wrote that continued service would leave him "inadequate time to fulfill possible future commitments."