What Sarah Palin and Nelson Rockefeller Have in Common

A friend asked about whether Sarah Palin’s resignation as Alaska governor last summer had any precedent, or if any governors in the past had, like her, just abruptly resigned.

The short answer is “no,” with one exception.

But before the long answer, let’s take a look at former Governor Palin’s stated reasons for leaving her elected position after serving for 31 months of a four-year term, or about 65% of a full term. On July 3, 2009, Gov. Palin announced that she would resign by the end of that month, citing, first, the high cost defending herself from ethics charges which she said were not only costly to her and the state but distracted her from serving Alaska. Then, she said she was not seeking re-election anyway and would therefore be a lame duck. Finally, Palin offered that, free from the governor’s office, she would be able to pursue her vision of change and serve her fellow Alaskans through other methods.

Some critics see her current activities—Fox News host, political campaign operative, conservative circuit speaker, etc.—as evidence of her true ambition and the real reason she stepped down. Being governor for another 18 months would hamper her ability to organize and campaign for the 2012 Republican nomination for president.

It is true that during her tenure as governor, Sarah Palin was the subject of numerous ethics probes (and not just after her selection as John McCain’s running mate), which forces the public official and some state organs to spend time and money to hire lawyers and investigators. Last summer news reports stated that her legal bills amounted to half a million dollars. A legal defense fund was set up to help pay the bills.

This resembles on the merits, but not in degree, the Clintons. Bill and Hillary Clinton were subject to years of litigation and investigation (Whitewater, Filegate, etc.) that incurred for them millions of dollars in legal bills. The courts found no evidence of wrongdoing (even though one of the investigations led directly to the Monica Lewinsky scandal). Through speaking fees and a private defense fund, the Clintons paid all the lawyers within a few years of leaving the White House.

So, whether she just found a convenient way to get herself out of office and start her path to the next level, or she really did face insurmountable financial problems had she stayed in office, we’ll never know for sure. And this question is being debated endlessly in other forums.

Ultimately, only Sarah Palin and her family know the reason why she resigned. What is true in her case is that, among the reasons that the last 100 governors had for resigning their office, there have been no other resignations—save one—quite like it.

The National Governors Association web site has a handy database where you can search for past governors according to different criteria. I used it to find all governors filtered by the value “Resigned,” which turned up a list of just over 200 names. A review of the last 100 short bios, from, most recently, Sarah Palin (2009) and Eliot Spitzer (2008) to Zebulon Baird Vance (North Carolina, 1879), gives us the following reasons for departure from a term of office before its conclusion.

Eighty-three of these 100 governors resigned to take on some other government-related position. Ten left under significant criminal or ethics clouds. Four resigned due to illness. And three others (including Sarah Palin) had other reasons outside these categories. More detail follows:

45 governors left office early to take a seat in the U.S. Senate. Either they were elected (variously by the people or by the state legislature) or appointed to fill out another senator’s term. Today, eleven of the 100 U.S. senators are former governors.

One governor—Michael Castle of Delaware—resigned in 1992 to take up a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

21 governors were appointed, usually by the president, to a federal government post. Many were appointed to the president’s cabinet or to ambassadorships. Some took on leadership of agencies or commissions.

8 became judges, including two Supreme Court justices—Charles Evan Hughes of New York (1910) and California’s Earl Warren (1953), who was also chief justice.

6 sitting governors in this list of 100 were elected president of the United States: New York’s Grover Cleveland (in 1884); Ohio’s William McKinley (1896); New Jersey’s Woodrow Wilson (1912); Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York (1932); Bill Clinton of Arkansas (1992); and George W. Bush from Texas (2000). Other former governors who  became president include Polk, Hayes, T. Roosevelt, Carter and Reagan; except for Hayes and Roosevelt, these governors did not resign their term in office to move into the White House.

One governor resigned to become vice president of the United States—Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland (1969). In 1973, he resigned the vice presidency under a charge of income tax evasion and kickbacks received during his tenure as governor. President Nixon replaced Agnew with Rep. Gerald Ford, minority leader of the House of Representatives.

Finally, one governor resigned to enter military service. In 1943, Minnesota’s Harold Stassen joined the U.S. Navy and served honorably as a captain.

Of the 10 governors who left under some duress, nine owed their downfall to some kind of criminal or ethics conviction. The other one left because his election was disputed.

One might say that Sarah Palin should be in the category of the nine who left under duress. Certainly, she claimed hardship (especially financial). However, these nine left office under much more extreme duress that Palin conceivably faced (apart from the financial issue). Two—Spitzer and James McGreevey—both left after admitting to some form of sexual impropriety. The other seven were all either convicted of crimes, impeached, or both.

Four governors left due to some illness.

This accounting of 100 governors has two remaining resignees. William Kavanagh Oldham was acting governor of Arkansas for six days in 1913, just long enough to allow a new Senate president to come on board and take over the reins. He didn’t actually want to be governor.

And finally, the one governor other than Sarah Palin who left not to take another government post, nor due to illness or scandal, was Nelson Rockefeller of New York. In December 1973, Governor Rockefeller resigned to devote himself full time to running the private Commission of Critical Choices for Americans that he had started the previous month … and to prepare for another presidential run in 1974. When President Nixon resigned in August 1974, President Ford nominated Rockefeller as vice president.

© 2010, Fred Dews

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