Behind Eric Shinseki's Downfall

Rob Carr/AP file photo

Eric Shinseki's staff was practically on a death watch Thursday, the prognosis darkening as the day wore on.

The early release of an interim report by the Veterans Affairs Department's inspector general had come as a surprise, and its finding that possibly fraudulent record keeping to hide extraordinary wait times at VA health facilities was a "systemic problem nationwide" prompted dozens of House Democrats and a fifth of the Senate Democratic caucus to join a Republican chorus calling on Shinseki to resign. An impassioned meeting between the VA secretary and veterans groups yielded only tepid support.

Then late in the day a thunderclap: a former mentor and key supporter, retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey, told The Wall Street Journal it was time for Shinseki to step down.

"Ric Shinseki is right out of central casting as the kind of person who should be leading the VA, but my reasoning was that Congress is deep into a political theater and hypocrisy right now on this issue and will be right up until the November elections, and Ric lacked the political instinct to go for the jugular and not be used as a convenient punching bag on Capitol Hill," McCaffrey told National Journal in explaining his decision. "So at 72 years old, Ric has served his country his entire life with quiet professionalism, and I think he's earned the right to hand over the reins now and let someone else try and solve these problems."

With support crumbling among Democrats and the White House eyeing a mid-term election that could hand the Senate to Republicans and threaten the president's legacy, Shinseki's public apology this morning, followed quickly by President Obama's acceptance of his resignation, were all but preordained. "He doesn't want to be distracting. That was Ric's judgement," Obama said in the White House briefing room. "I agree. We don't have time for distractions."

In the end Shinseki was undone by his attempts to scale twin peaks of American dysfunction: a VA health system overwhelmed by veterans wounded and damaged by more than a decade of war, and Washington's hyper-partisan politics on the issue of health care. As a retired four-star general and former soldier, he also knew that responsibility ultimately rests with the commander at the top, and Shinseki had no ready answer to the question posed by the scandal: Given problems associated with long waiting times and inappropriate scheduling schemes to mask them that trace back many years, why didn't he know that a systemic problem existed?

When Obama made Shinseki one of his first Cabinet picks in 2008, the officer seemed to check all the boxes. He was a disabled veteran who lost half his foot to a landmine and received Purple Heart medals on both tours in Vietnam. As Army chief of staff, Shinseki had clashed publicly with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, testifying that the postwar occupation of Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops, far more than what the Pentagon was estimating. History proved Shinseki right—and Rumsfeld disastrously wrong—a point not lost on a new president who made opposition to the Iraq War a focal point of his campaign.

Ironically, Shinseki saw the job of VA Secretary as a second chance to end his career on a less controversial note (Rumsfeld famously made him a lame duck as Army chief by naming his successor more than a year before Shinseki's retirement). "I took this job because you don't often get 'do-overs' in life," Shinseki told National Journal in a 2011 interview. "For me, this job is a big do-over, because I get to take care of people I served with in Vietnam, as well as people whom I sent to war as Army chief of staff."

A change agent in the Army who worked to make the service lighter and more rapidly deployable, Shinseki set about reforming the vast VA bureaucracy with a strategic campaign fought on three fronts: cutting a persistent backlog of disability claims; improving veterans' access to VA services; and reducing homelessness among veterans. A large part of his legacy will be the notable progress he made on each front. The result has been a VA health service that is consistently rated by veteran patients in independent surveys to be among the best in the nation, and equal to or better than private-sector hospitals.

However, the VA health system has also struggled mightily to cope with a population of wounded veterans swelled by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including nearly half a million service members suffering from posttraumatic-stress disorder by some estimates, and more than a million service members expected to separate from military service and join the ranks of veterans between 2011 and 2016. They are adding to the increased demands of an aging population of Vietnam veterans, whose disability claims spiked by 250,000 after Shinseki made the decision to finally settle Agent Orange claims because "it was the right thing to do."

That is the context behind the recent VA IG report that the health care system in Phoenix grossly misstated how quickly veterans were receiving care, with some waiting 115 days for an initial appointment and 1,700 veterans languishing on an unofficial wait-list. It was just the latest reminder that the VA system's supply of health care lags significantly behind growing demand.

Sources close to Shinseki also believe the scandal and his response became hopelessly entangled in the partisan politics surrounding Obamacare, with Republicans determined to make the failings of national health care in general a primary focus in upcoming elections. A number of Republicans have responded to the scandal by calling for the privatization of the Veterans Health Administration, for instance, and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., engaged in an unusually vitriolic public argument with veterans groups after criticizing them, just before Memorial Day, for not demanding Shinseki's resignation.

"Part of the dynamic was Republicans who favor privatization saw criticisms of the VA health system and of Shinseki as an easy way to impugn 'socialized medicine,' which made Democrats who might be sympathetic to such a single-payer system nervous," said a senior VA official.

Shinseki was determined to stay above that political scrum, and like a good general he trusted subordinates to bring him bad news as well as good. The honor and integrity that Shinseki bought to the job, said the official, thus made him reluctant to engage in political infighting, or to question the truthfulness of his lieutenants. "It's like a Greek tragedy that way," he said. "The very attributes that made him perfect for the job also contributed to his downfall."

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