It is the springtime of a presidential election year. The country remains on a war footing. A beleaguered president confronts a major challenge both to his renomination and his reelection. Influential politicians in his own party demand that he step down because of allegedly incompetent and indecisive leadership. In the midst of crisis, his most respected and popular Cabinet member resigns. Protests mount, then abruptly subside, when the president appoints as the secretary's successor one of the upper chamber's inner circle, a widely respected senator from Maine. This year is 1864.
Unlike self-effacing Cyrus Vance, Abraham Lincoln's secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, had made a habit of resigning periodically, if only to compel Lincoln to decline the irascible Ohioan's threat to leave. Lincoln's Cabinet contained a cross-section of Republican Party factional leaders, among them Chase. The president found himself forced to play a continual and tiresome role as peacemaker among Cabinet rivals, some of whom sought to extend their personal influence over government policy and appointments while constraining Lincoln's freedom of action.
Much to Chase's surprise, when he offered to "resign" yet another time in late-June 1864, Lincoln agreed. "[You] and I," the president wrote Chase, "have reached a point of mutual embarrassment in our official relation which it seems cannot be overcome, or longer sustained." Upon learning the news, a delegation of Chase's senatorial allies angrily descended on the White House, threatening political mayhem unless the president successfully explained -- or better yet reversed -- his decision. Lincoln chose to explain, but his description of Chase's overbearing conduct made little impression upon the lawmakers. They were undoubtedly more intrigued by Lincoln's offer to resign if the Senate refused to accept his decision.
A number of anti-Lincoln senators undoubtedly slept contentedly that night, counting the days until the president's departure. The nights ahead would prove less peaceful for them, because on the following day, Lincoln appointed Maine Sen. William Pitt Fessenden, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, secretary of the Treasury. What to do? Chase's Senate supporters were also Fessenden's colleagues and friends; they could hardly condemn his appointment as Chase's successor. Since Congress and the public reacted enthusiastically to Fessenden's nomination, Lincoln's brief Cabinet "crisis" ended with his authority enhanced. As for Chase, when Roger Taney, chief justice of the Supreme Court, died that fall, Lincoln removed the mercurial ex-secretary from politics altogether by appointing him as Taney's successor. There, Chase would later preside over the impeachment trial of Lincoln's choice as vice-president in 1864 (later president), Andrew Johnson.
Whether the friends of Cyrus Vance prove to have longer memories than those who briefly championed the cause of Salmon P. Chase against his president remains to be seen. The historical circumstances surrounding the 1864 and 1980 resignations remain profoundly different, and despite their superficial comparability, it would be hazardous to stretch the historical analogy. The comparison of Carter and Lincoln, Vance and Chase or Muskie and Fessenden suggests no apparent insights into our present condition, with one possible exception.
The act of resigning itself, as Cyrus Vance knows better than most (having observed the process in relation to several of his colleagues in the Johnson administration), remains at one level a theatrical performance, however principled the reasons. Compare, then, for a moment Chase's case and Vance's stance. Salmon Chase was a man prone to melodramatic gestures at moments of great conflict. His final resignation -- stirring an outcry from his many supporters that only Fessenden's appointment dampened -- fit the overall pattern. But those who know him best have noted Cyrus Vance's temperamental aversion to the type of assertive, self-dramatizing public performances that have been identified with his chief adversary in the Carter administration.
How, then, did Vance choose to resign? Quietly? Waiting until the tensions of the moment had subsided? Playing out his performance as secretary of state in an extended and restrained piece of theater? Or abruptly, even melodramatically, in timing and stagecraft though not in the farewell lines themselves?
In fairness, Vance and Carter may have reached over the previous months their own "point of mutual embarrassment" that transcended any single incident or set of incidents, in which case the secretary fled with unsuspected flair from a breach in his "official relation" with the president that could "not be overcome, or longer sustained."
Although we can only speculate on that question for the moment, Carter may be awaiting Cyrus Vance's scheduled commencement address at Harvard later this spring with the same anxiety that affected Lincoln's reaction to Chase's post-dismissal statements. Nor does there appear to be a fortuitous Supreme Court vacancy or comparable post on the horizon for the departing secretary.