WASHINGTON — President Obama stopped short of dressing down his veterans affairs secretary, Eric Shinseki, during a blunt hourlong talk in the Oval Office on Wednesday. But the commander in chief made clear that a growing health-care scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs had put the future of Shinseki — a retired four-star general and no stranger to Washington political uproars — once again on the line.
“I said it to him today: I want to see what the results of these reports are, and there is going to be accountability,” Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room immediately afterward, referring to internal inquiries, as Shinseki quietly left the West Wing through a side door.
The president called Shinseki a “good soldier” who had put his “heart and soul” into the care of veterans, and said that “we’re going to work with him to solve the problem.” But, he repeated: “I am going to make sure there is accountability.”
It was a grim moment for the 71-year-old Shinseki, whose own disability — he lost part of his right foot after tripping on a land mine when he was a young soldier in Vietnam — makes him a client of the sprawling agency he oversees. A former Army chief of staff who famously fought with the Bush White House over the war in Iraq, he is facing another dramatic turn in a career that has been filled with them.
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Allegations that veterans hospitals manipulated waiting lists to hide long delays that many patients faced to see doctors have created a political storm for the Obama White House and prompted condemnations on Capitol Hill, where many Republicans — and as of Wednesday, two House Democrats, both from Georgia — are calling for Shinseki to resign.
“I respect his sacrifice, I respect what he did, but it’s under his watch that we are in this situation,” one of those Democrats, Rep. David Scott, said Wednesday in an impassioned speech on the House floor. “Mr. President, we need urgency!”
Self-contained and introverted, Shinseki is regarded by friends and detractors alike as “dignified,” the word most often used to describe him. But the health-care scandal has become fodder for late-night television — never a good development for survival in Washington — and even some admirers wonder how long he will last.
In Senate testimony last week, Shinseki proclaimed himself “mad as hell,” which prompted Jon Stewart, the host of the “Daily Show,” to pillory him on Monday night. “Your ‘mad as hell’ face looks like your ‘Uh-oh, we’re out of orange juice’ face,” Stewart said.
Known by the nickname Ric and in his sixth year running the veterans agency, Shinseki was until now best known in Washington for infuriating Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, by predicting that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed in postwar Iraq. The assertion left Shinseki ostracized by the White House, but when he stepped down in 2003, Michael O’Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, predicted that history would vindicate him.
And it did: In 2007, Bush, confronting growing chaos in Iraq, built up American troops there to more than 160,000.
“Gen. Shinseki was right,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said at the time.
Now Republicans — perhaps sensing an opportunity to go after Obama in this midterm election year — are hardly coming to Shinseki’s defense. On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Republican senators convened a news conference, with one after another using the case to lash out at the president.
“Somebody needs to be in charge at the White House, and somebody needs to start taking responsibility,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., an orthopedic surgeon, said that Obama’s remarks at the White House were simply a “restatement of exactly what Secretary Shinseki said.”
Friends say this is hardly the toughest fight of Shinseki’s life. Born in Hawaii to Japanese immigrant parents, he was commanding troops as an Army captain in 1970 in Vietnam when the land mine blew off half of his right foot.
Army doctors wanted to amputate the foot, including his ankle. Fearful he would be forced to retire, Shinseki fought them and demanded a prosthetic that would spare his ankle and allow him to continue his military career.
Bill Nash, a retired Army general who got to know the future secretary when they played sports against each other while attending separate war colleges, said the injury never seemed to slow him down.
“He could play a hell of a soccer game,” Nash said.
Shinseki eventually rose to the top Army job, chief of staff, under President Clinton, becoming the highest-ranking Asian American in the military. But his tenure under Clinton was not without controversy.
At the outset, he set out to transform the Army into a leaner, more agile force. But he ran afoul of Republicans on Capitol Hill, and some of his own midlevel officers, when Pentagon budget cuts forced reductions in readiness training.
“His rank-and-file wanted him to march into the Oval Office and slam his stars on the desk and say, ‘I’m leaving, damn it, unless you give my men what they deserve,’ ” said Peter Feaver, a Duke University expert. “Instead, he was working within the system to do the best he could.”
In what Feaver said was a reflection of Shinseki’s political tin ear, as the new Army chief of staff he also announced a sartorial change for his troops: He directed all soldiers to wear as “a symbol of excellence” a black beret, which had been the exclusive symbol of the Army’s elite cadre, the Rangers.
Shinseki’s decision quickly escalated into a battle with the Rangers, who considered the move a slap in the face and raised objections that got attention on Capitol Hill and at the White House. Eventually, the Rangers won the right to distinguish themselves with tan berets.