IN THE words of Herbert Stein, chairman of Richard Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisors, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The uncertainty over Ronny Jackson’s future could not go on forever. Nominated by Donald Trump to be Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, he was due to appear before a Senate committee this week. But on April 23rd, allegations surfaced that Mr Jackson overprescribed drugs, drank on duty and was a nightmare to work with. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee postponed his hearing.
On the evening of April 25th those allegations grew more specific. The committee’s minority staff released a document based on “conversations with 23 colleagues and former colleagues” alleging, among other things, that Mr Jackson doled out prescription drugs without prescriptions (a practice that allegedly earned him the nickname “Candyman”), drank while on call, wrecked a government vehicle while drunk, described as “toxic,” “abusive,” “incapable of not losing his temper,” and prone to “screaming tantrums”.
Mr Jackson denied the allegations, and at least two members of Barack Obama’s administration defended him. The White House said it was standing by him. But his travails raised a classic Washington question: How much damage can a nominee take? The answer? Three days’ worth: on the morning of April 26th, Mr Jackson withdrew.
The real problem was not that Mr Jackson may have been an unpleasant colleague who occasionally drank too much (you can’t roll a quarter down the street in Washington without hitting someone who fits that description). The problem was that he was nominated in the first place. Mr Jackson is by all accounts a fine physician who honourably served and got on well with three presidents, as well as his country (he is a navy admiral).
But the Veterans Affairs department is huge, Byzantine, troubled and subject to all sorts of outside pressures. Mr Jackson has never run an organisation of any size. His main qualifications, as we wrote this week, seem to be his good looks and his willingness to praise Mr Trump on TV. Even Senate Republicans—fresh from approving as America’s top diplomat a man who openly mused about bombing Iran—urged the White House to pick someone else.
Who that will be remains unclear, but it is to be hoped that that person is vetted more thoroughly beforehand. The White House claims it did vet Mr Jackson, but it is hard to see how that could be true. Mr Trump chose him, as he has so many others, because he liked him, not because Mr Jackson was qualified for the job.
That cavalier attitude and lack of oversight have real consequences. Today Scott Pruitt, who heads the Environmental Protection Agency, is testifying before Congress about his alleged overspending and close ties with energy lobbyists. Two other cabinet secretaries were pushed out in part because they billed taxpayers for personal travel. Scandals fester in this administration because the president has made it clear he has no interest in ethical norms. People who praise him rise.