Put Out to Scapegoat Pasture

By Rachel Dry
Sunday, March 18, 2007

Chief of Staff D. Kyle Sampson was the "perfect man for the job." His former boss, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, was referring to the job Sampson did in singling out "weak performers" in U.S. attorneys' offices nationwide.

But after the unceremonious firing of eight federal prosecutors raised criticism of Gonzales's Justice Department, Sampson was again the perfect man for the job -- the job of fall guy. He resigned last week, without much chance to "make arrangements for work in the private sector and 'save face' regarding the reason for leaving." That was Sampson's own suggestion for how fired U.S. attorneys should leave office, detailed in an e-mail to then-White House counsel Harriet Miers.

Many who have walked the halls of government have lied about paying for sex or taking vicuña fur coats under the table and have been forced out of office because of their own misdeeds. But the fall guy -- a term of art, not a precise category -- is a different breed. He is not the CEO, to use the term Gonzales applied to his own stewardship at Justice, but he has enough power -- and guilt -- to claim a whiff of culpability, or have it claimed for him.

Below are some who have been left twisting, sometimes not so slowly, in the wind:

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· Army Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman was fired in the wake of the revelations about substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He got the boot just six months after assuming command, prompting Republican Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young to say of Weightman: "I don't know him. But I know he's the fall guy."

· Since his 2005 indictment, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby has taken the sole hit in the CIA leak investigation. Everyone from Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer to the jurors who convicted Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff of perjury said Libby was the fall guy.

· Michael Brown, who went from Arabian horses to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, bore the brunt of public outrage for the administration's bumbling after Hurricane Katrina and quickly resigned.

· Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said "I take full responsibility" for the abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, but Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski was the highest-ranking officer punished in the scandal and was demoted to colonel.

· Roger C. Altman wasn't the only Clinton administration official to resign during Whitewater, but the deputy Treasury secretary did fight the hardest to stay, saying he did not intend to be the administration's fall guy. The best of intentions got in the way of what was best for the president, and Altman eventually left, saying he hoped to "diminish" the controversy.

· Adm. Frank B. Kelso II said that he would be the fall guy and that the investigation should stop with him when he stepped down as chief of naval operations after the Navy's 1991 Tailhook sexual-harassment scandal.

· Oliver North and John M. Poindexter, national security aides to Ronald Reagan, took the fall for the Iran-contra scandal. North has repeatedly referred to himself as a fall guy, in some ways glorifying that status.

· Anne Gorsuch Burford, President Ronald Reagan's Environmental Protection Agency director, slashed and burned the budget at the expense -- critics said -- of environmental protection. She also refused to turn over Superfund records and was cited for contempt of Congress. After being forced to resign, she seemed to revel in fall girl status, later writing that "when congressional criticism about the EPA began to touch the presidency, Mr. Reagan solved his problem by jettisoning me and my people, people whose only 'crime' was loyal service, following orders."

· Eventually almost everyone fell during Watergate, but among the first were campaign aide Herbert L. Porter and Jeb Stuart Magruder, then number two at the Committee to Reelect the President. White House counsel John W. Dean feared that he'd be the fall guy, so instead he went to prosecutors. Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and top adviser John D. Ehrlichman were also forced out, but not before President Richard M. Nixon called them "two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know."

· Shortly after the Bay of Pigs invasion went horribly wrong, President John F. Kennedy told Richard M. Bissell Jr., top aide at CIA, that Bissell and CIA Director Allen Dulles would be taking the fall. "If this were a parliamentary government, I would have to resign and you, a civil servant, would stay on," Bissell recalled the president telling him. "But being the system of government it is, a Presidential government, you will have to resign."

· Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Army Lt. Gen. Walter Short, charged with "dereliction of duty" and blamed for American unpreparedness before Pearl Harbor, were demoted in rank.

· Republican Sen. Albert B. Fall of New Mexico, a fall guy with both ignominy and eponymy, was indicted, convicted and served prison time for illegally accepting money from government tenants during the Teapot Dome scandal. Warren G. Harding, president during the scandal, was not implicated at the time, but some historians argue that he might have been had he not died before the investigation concluded.

Lee Majors played stuntman-turned-bounty hunter Colt Seavers on the 1980s ABC television series "The Fall Guy." Seavers took real falls out of burning helicopters or speeding cars. Sampson's role was perhaps a little easier to play.

Rachel Dry is on the Outlook staff.

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