Kathleen Sebelius, welcome to an unwelcome Washington tradition: The deathwatch.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will testify before congress about the problems facing HealthCare.gov. Here's a preview of what may be in store. (The Washington Post)

It’s Kathleen Sebelius’s turn now. On the Hill, they’re calling for her resignation and tossing around words like “subpoena.” Pundits are merrily debating her future. (She’s toast! Or is Obama too loyal to fire her so soon?) Her interviews, more closely parsed than usual, seem wobbly. Though never a colorful presence on the political scene, she’s suddenly a late-night TV punch line.

And on Wednesday morning, the embattled secretary of health and human services will submit to a quintessential station of the Washington deathwatch — testifying before a congressional committee — to discuss her agency’s failings in the botched rollout of the federal health-insurance Web site.

We’ve seen it so many times before. But how does it feel?

LIVE BLOG: Sebelius testifies

FACT CHECKER: The president’s abandoned promise on health care

“I just kept sliding down, sliding down, and now I’m out of a job,” former agriculture secretary Mike Espy told The Washington Post in an agonized interview just days after his 1994 resignation.

It was a rare glimpse into the real-time emotions of a top-level appointee at his hour of doom — a process so bruising that many seem reluctant to discuss it years later, even after they’ve moved on to successful second acts or quiet retirements. Many of The Post’s calls went unreturned; interviews that were promised failed to materialize.

One former high-level appointee who ran the gantlet several years ago — and spoke hesitantly, on the condition he not be named — recalled speaking at a press event unrelated to the controversy of the moment: “We were there to talk about the good work [we] were doing. All the questions we got from the media were about the investigations.”

(He added, “It was much tougher on my wife, because she read everything and I didn’t.”)

Then again, dealing with reporters is often recalled as one of the most unpleasant parts of the process. Thirteen years after the protracted drip-drip-drip of allegations about questionable banking practices that led to Bert Lance’s resignation as President Jimmy Carter’s Office of Management and Budget director, he lashed out at “media puppets” in a bitter 1991 memoir. Lance, who died in August, even claimed he was victim of an insiders’ conspiracy, supposedly helmed by the New York Times columnist William Safire, to stop him from becoming chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Espy, a Bill Clinton appointee undone by allegations he had collected freebies from a poultry company (he was later acquitted of all criminal charges), took a more measured view. “It’s this newspaper perception of wrongdoing,” he told The Post in 1994. “It’s all perception, and perception is reality — they take that to heart at the White House. They want me to explain it, but it didn’t matter.”

For Alexander Haig, the media deathwatch seemed only a minor annoyance during his tumultuous final months as President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, he recounted in his 1984 memoir. Sure, there were the whispers in the press from unnamed White House aides accusing him of “grandstanding.” But behind the scenes, the most chilling writing on the wall came in the form of longtime colleagues going cold, staffers rigging last-minute seating changes at meetings with foreign dignitaries, a photo-op with the Japanese prime minister getting canceled.

Haig, who died in 2010, wrote that he tried to explain cordially to the president that he could not continue to work while being undermined by other top aides. The next day, Reagan handed him a note: “Dear Al, It is with the most profound regret that I accept your letter of resignation.”

“The president,” Haig wrote, “was accepting a letter of resignation that I had not submitted.”

After a handful of public comments that seemed to put him at odds with administration policy, Paul O’Neill found himself looped out of the planning for a major economic conference, Ron Suskind recounted in “The Price of Loyalty,” his 2004 biography of President George W. Bush’s first Treasury secretary.

A month later, O’Neill noticed that Dubya’s jocular nickname for him had suddenly changed from “Pablo” to “Big O.” He wasn’t sure what that was about, but it didn’t sound flattering. Two months after that, he started hearing rumors about who might be in line to replace him — and asked the president if he should bother going on a planned trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Suskind wrote: “Bush paused for a moment. ‘No, there’s not a problem. You should go.’ ”

Yet until the end, O’Neill was laboring away at his day job. It’s a fact overlooked by deathwatch connoisseurs: While observers are consumed by parsing signs of an imminent resignation, the appointees are still weighed down by the daily duties of Washington’s busiest jobs, which don’t let up just because those jobs could soon evaporate.

But, sighed that former high-level appointee who spoke to The Post this week, “you understand that’s the way it happens in Washington.”

Kathleen Sebelius acknowledges ‘frustrating’ problems with health-care Web site

LIVE BLOG: Sebelius testifies

Amy Argetsinger is a staff writer for the Style section.
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