Resignation: What Kind of V.A. Secretary Was Eric Shinseki?

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

Vietnam veteran Rollie Lewis, center, from Solway, Minn., looks at the challenge coin given to him by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki at the Veterans Affairs Regional Office in Fargo, N.D., July 5, 2011.

To no one's surprise, Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki resigned today. Once Democrats started calling for him to step down, it was pretty much inevitable; the political damage from him remaining was just too overwhelming to resist. But even if you've been following the V.A. scandal closely, you probably have no idea whether Shinseki was actually doing a good job as secretary. You're not alone; in fact, the ratio of people who actually understand his tenure to those who are expressing opinions about it is infinitesimal. Not only that, we'll probably get only the blurriest impression of how his successor does.

The reason is that like most departments of the federal government outside of State, Defense, and to a lesser extent Treasury and Health and Human Services, few people pay attention to the V.A. until there's a scandal. You see John Kerry in the news and have a sense of what he's doing, so you can form an opinion. But do you think the secretary of commerce is doing a good job? Do you even know who the Secretary of Commerce is? (It's Penny Pritzker, by the way.)

Because it's a lower-profile department, there isn't a large cadre of journalists who have the V.A. as their regular beat—journalists who understand the department and have cultivated the sources that can tell them what's really going on. When a story like this breaks, the coverage comes mostly from journalists whose regular job on other beats around Washington, like Capitol Hill or the White House. So they cover it from the angles they know. If you're a Capitol Hill reporter, that means writing about what members of Congress think about it; if you're a White House reporter, that means describing what officials in the White House are saying. And most of them don't have any better understanding of the V.A. than you do. Which is why context has often been so late in arriving; for instance, just today, Mariah Blake of Mother Jones reports that there have been repeated inspector general investigations of managers at the V.A. gaming the system to cover up backlogs in getting vets their appointments--going back to 2002, when a certain guy who liked to dress up in a flight suit was president.

So while there have been plenty of assessments that come more from common sense than from actual information—e.g., "If he didn't know about this, he wasn't doing his job"—it's been almost impossible to find any discussion of Shinseki's tenure that is actually based on an informed understanding what kind of secretary he has been. And you'd think, if the question of the moment was whether he should resign, that that would be good to know. He obviously had one major failure, but what about the rest of what he did in his job? Was it great, was it terrible? Few people know, and I suppose at this point it's moot. But it might help if we're going to have to judge the department's performance from this point forward.