Admiral Kimmel and Secretary Sebilius

The disastrous introduction of the new healthcare website has me thinking of Admiral Kimmel. Husband E. Kimmel, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet in 1941, was one of the last American leaders to lose his position due to a failure. Since his day, people have lost important jobs for other reasons, but not for simply presiding over a debacle. 

Kimmel was by no means a bad man or an inefficient officer. He simply prepared for the wrong threat, ignored the real one, and left his command unable to respond when the attack came. The culpability for the loss of all the ships and planes and men fell on the Japanese Empire, but the responsibility for the defeat the American forces had suffered was Kimmel’s. He was removed from command of the Pacific Fleet, reduced in rank, and never received another appointment. And all because of a failure that wasn’t entirely his fault.

Since then military, civilian, academic, and business leaders have seen their careers destroyed, but rarely for simple failure. Most of the generals I can recall being dismissed during my lifetime lost their jobs because they criticized the president, not because they lost a battle. Academic leaders who have adopted disastrous policies or alienated their faculties keep their salaries and perks and go on to enjoy the sort of paid leave that productive scholars have to struggle to get. CEO’s can leave their companies “illiquid” or bankrupt and still walk away with golden parachutes, not to mention the inflated salaries they received while guiding their enterprises toward the cliff.

Now we are seeing that, once again, there are no consequences for failure in public office. That was made clear during the last administration, when the Medal of Freedom was bestowed on George Tenet, the CIA Director who put his imprimatur on the reports of Iraqi weapons of mass destructions that justified the Gulf War, after having failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Only the suspicion that he was in fact receiving a pay-off for producing the lies needed to support the war President Bush had already decided to start made that honor seem like a corrupt bargain instead of a ridiculous sham. It was truly farcical when the same president told the Director of FEMA, an agency then not doing much to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina, that he was doing a “Heckuva Job.” 

If any hoped that things would change with the Obama administration, they have been disappointed in this area, as in so many others. The centerpiece of the president’s domestic policy is simply not working, and no one is being held accountable. The president has taken responsibility, but only to shrug it off again. He says over and over, “That’s on us,” not “That’s on me,” and never describes where he failed. The same is true of Secretary of Health and Human Services Sebilius. She takes responsibility verbally, but does not say where she herself went wrong. More significantly, she has not resigned her post, which is what someone responsible for a significant failure should do. Still worse, the president has not dismissed her. He can hardly resign: The Constitution clearly envisages that a president will fill out his term unless he is guilty of a crime. But she serves at his pleasure, and if he still thinks Secretary Sibelius the best person for the job, he clearly does not think the disastrous introduction of his health care plan as serious a matter as he claims when he takes responsibility for it.

What both these public servants owe the people is an honest explanation of how the current situation came to pass. The first question they should each answer is, “When did you first sit down at a laptop and try to log on to the prototype website?" If they never did that, we can leave it there. These leaders were too detached to see that things worked. When a software company issues a buggy release, users wonder why its CEO doesn’t try out his own stuff. All American citizens should ask the same questions of their leaders. 

The president and the secretary should then tell us why they thought the system for creating a website that they chose would work. Did they consider giving the job to a company that had done it, an eBay or an Amazon? Did they have someone who knew how such things worked in charge of the whole process? Who else in federal government actually made the decisions that led us to this point? The answers to those questions will help us do better in the future. And let’s not allow them to blame their political opponents: Once the ACA was passed, their job was to implement it despite them, if need be.

Before anything else happens, however, there has be some consequence for the failure that has become so obvious. I am not suggesting we shoot anyone, though I can’t help recalling what Voltaire said after the Royal Navy shot Admiral Byng for losing Minorca to the French: “The British shoot an admiral every now and then to encourage the others.” (I note that British admirals were largely victorious for the next 150 years.) I only suggest that someone lose a high profile job, as Admiral Kimmel did. Since it is President Obama’s duty to remain in office until the end of his term, that person should be Secretary Sebillius. Otherwise, our nation will one again send the message it has so often recently: we have zero tolerance for failure among the lowly; we do not even notice it among the great.