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Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.
Legal Scholar

Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

Business ethics expert; senior fellow at Harvard’s schools of law and government; former General Counsel for General Electric; former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services.)

The Long Goodbye

In the private sector, the best practice is that ex-CEOs step down from the corporation's board and refrain from criticizing their (often handpicked) successor, even at private lunches in New York (because gossip moves faster than light) and certainly in public.

The new CEO should have his or her run, without second-guessing from the Ex. Even if the company shifts course sharply or is beset by subsequent problems, it is up to the board, the shareholders, the business media to sharpshoot the successor CEO. Business moves so quickly that the former CEO often lacks the day-to-day organizational and market information to critique strategies or decisions. Ex-CEOs know that the job is tough enough, and surrounded by enough critics, without adding their voice to any boo-bird chorus.

The same general practice has historically applied to ex-presidents in recent times. They rarely speak out publicly against their immediate successors for a variety of reasons: the American people have chosen a new president; the successor should be given a chance; it is below the dignity of the ex-president to get down for a dust-up in the political arena. If ex-presidents speak critically it all, it is long after they have left office and assumed a role as public citizen (as has been the case, from time to time, with President Carter).

But there are obvious exceptions to these "rules of comity."

In the private sector, CEOs who are thrown over the side by the board of directors or a new merger partner -- rather than just leaving via normal succession -- may wish to defend their reputations and their judgments. Recent cases are Hank Greenberg at AIG and John Thain of Merrill Lynch. They were involved in very public disputes and problems. Whether one agrees or disagrees with their positions, it certainly is understandable, given the complexity of corporate action and the vagaries of media coverage, that they would want to "get out" their side of story, either on their personal actions or their record.

In the public sector, there is, of course, the distinguished tradition of resigning on principle. If one truly believes that the government is making a mistake of profound importance, then criticizing it by resigning is an honorable course (practiced in the UK, of course, far more than in the US). Cy Vance's resignation over the Iran rescue mission in the Carter Administration still stands as one of the few senior resignations on principle at the high levels of American government.

Also, like a CEO forced from office, public officials whose party and ideas are rejected by the electorate may feel that important principles have been ignored which require a loyal opposition to speak up. A defense of the Bush Administration's approach to national security and terror is certainly legitimate at a time when the pendulum is swinging the other direction (to a degree). There should be a great national dialogue on issues of such import. The question about Dick Cheney's outspokenness is, in my view, much less about its propriety than about his judgment and his political effectiveness. Is he the right voice for a post-election Republican party?

Although the rules of comity make sense, this is an open society and when ex-public or private sector officials want to engage in a long-goodbye because they believe deeply in a position, it is hard to say their voices shouldn't be heard in the marketplace of ideas.

By Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr.

 |  May 12, 2009; 11:56 AM ET
Category:  Followership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Bravo, Mr. Heineman. Cheney is so out of hand in so many of the things he is saying I just can't believe what I'm seeing. IF some indictments come down the pike, I wonder what he's going to do. That is what many of us are watching for. We are ALL waiting for the Seymour Hersh book.

Posted by: liska33 | May 13, 2009 2:07 PM
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The use of torture was never intended to enhance national security. It was intended to force false confessions of cooperation between Al Quaeda and Iraq in a futile attempt to defend the unprovoked attack and occupation of Iraq. Cheney's claim that torture makes us stronger is the opposite of the truth and is only a pitiful attempt to defend the war crimes to which he and Shrub have publicly confessed.

Posted by: g_higgs | May 13, 2009 1:53 PM
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Amazing how republicans feel that it is inappropriate to notice that the actions that the Obama administration has to take are necessary BECAUSE of the failures and errors of the previous administration. Best not to mention the cause of the problems. Just move on. Nothing to see here. Move along....

Posted by: jgillies | May 13, 2009 1:03 PM
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Don't take my word for it. Cull through the news accounts and you will find that Bush 43 did in fact trash Clinton repeatedly early in his administrattion and continued to blame any failures on him. Let's see whether Obama gets past using history to justify his policy changes to years from now fully accepting responsibility for whatever happened under his watch. That would be an impressive difference from his predecessors and their adherents with selective memory.

Posted by: buzzkill1 | May 13, 2009 12:44 PM
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I see this a bit differently. Even Bush in his limited wisdom refrained from trashing the prior administration.

Obama on the other hand, has made a sport of it.

One of these days perhaps he'll realize that he was hired to do a job, not make excuses. Until that time comes, Cheney is within bounds defending himself.

Posted by: tonynelson1 | May 13, 2009 12:12 PM
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Please people, remember the fact that Cheney was picked by Bush to select a VP running mate. Then after Cheney vetted and has records of very private issues of countless GOP govs, Senators, etc... he chose himself. So now, like with J.Edgar Hoover, he can hold these files over the heads of these other GOP heads. If I had one question to ask him it would be "How does trying to sell the control of US ports to a Dubai based company make the country safer?"

Posted by: katem1 | May 13, 2009 11:51 AM
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It should be obvious to all but fanatic Obama supporters that his incessant criticisms of everything about "the last eight years" would eventually invite a response. Obama has pandered to all the Bush haters, both here and abroad, for his own political gain.

For the sake of comity, and the country, he needs to shut up and move on.

Posted by: magellan1 | May 13, 2009 7:07 AM
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We have heard more from Dick Cheney in the last 3 months concerning his questionable National Security Policies, then we did when he was in office for 8 Years. (hum)

There is something quite wrong with Cheney's recent actions and behavior.

Posted by: lcarter0311 | May 13, 2009 12:02 AM
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Cheney was never one to follow rules or treaty obligations so it's not surprising that he continues to rant against the new administration. Cheney is an aberration in the US political system; he was an accidental VP to an accidental President appointed by the Supreme Court. Cheney lacks dignity, integrity and statesmanship. He should shut up.

Posted by: mstratas | May 12, 2009 2:17 PM
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