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Pullling a Puckett: A Brief History of Selling Out

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Pity poor Phillip Puckett.

There he was, a Virginia state senator no one had ever heard of, figuring no one would notice when he traded his constituents' well-being for a new job and a judgeship for his daughter. But no! Now the Internet is abuzz with the news and Puckett has more or less been accused of accepting a bribe. And he's been called all sorts of nasty names too: corrupt, traitorous, venal, and worse. Sheesh, the life of an obscure state legislator ain't what it used to be.

But no one seems to recognize that by bailing out when the going got tough, Senator Puckett is simply doing what many others before him have done, and often with good results. "Pulling a Puckett" has a rich history that deserves our respect, and Puckett now joins a distinguished list of those who have not been daunted by the adage "quitters never win."

Earlier this year Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled to a neizvestnoe mestonakhozhdenie (an "undisclosed location") in Russia after he waffled, bungled and then try to squash the unrest in his country. Of course, Yanukovyich was a bit smarter than Puckett when he flew the coop because he had lined his pockets before he slipped out of town. Which is a good lesson to remember: If you are going to betray the people who voted for you, make sure you've already cashed the checks.

Last year Pope Benedict pulled a Puckett when he became the first pontiff since 1294 not to die in power. It was real testament to the men who elected Benedict that they managed to find an actual member of the Hitler Youth to call "His Holiness," but in truth Benedict was not the people's choice. Now comes news from The Vatican that their banking operations seem to have been run by distant relatives of Tony Soprano. Smart move Pope Puckett: Get out before the financial cazzata over which you preside hits the fan.

Closer to home, aspiring TV star and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin did a Puckett in 2009. She made the difficult decision to abandon her elective office when she realized she was living in the smallest, least dense media market in the country, and that her daughter would never be part of the cast of Big Brother living in Alaska. Now Sarah Palin is on TV all the time! The lesson here is that there is no shame in pursuing your career dreams, even if you have to be elected to office first. Perhaps it was always Senator Puckett's dream to be a deputy commissioner of a tobacco somethingorother. New promise to voters: I'll pledge to serve you until something better comes along!

This summer, of course, we will mark the 40th anniversary of the biggest Puckett event in American history. In August 1974 Richard Nixon, smiling his jowly smile and waving his "V for victory" wave abandoned the presidency for the sunnier climes of southern California. Sure Nixon left town two steps ahead of an impeachment, but he spent the next 20 years reinventing himself as an "elder statesman," confidante of presidents and diplomats. Nixon showed us that while sins might not be forgiven, crimes could be pardoned, especially if you hand-pick your successor. Puckett take-away here? F. Scott Fitzgerald was dead wrong: Nixon proved that there are nothing but second acts, at least in American political lives.

Even the famously stoical, stiff-upper-lipped British have not been strangers to Pucketting. In 1936 King Edward VIII abdicated the throne to be with the woman he loved. A truly romantic story, and his abandonment of his post permitted him and his wife to take their anti-Semitism and their admiration of Nazi Germany to France, where they lived happily ever after during the war. With their departure, England was spared the embarrassment of having those two around while the nation fought off the Nazis, and Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter were able to move into Buckingham Palace. Or was that only in the movie The King's Speech? I can't remember.

So there is often an upside to pulling a Puckett, and I'm sure there will be one in Virginia. In exchange for selling out tens of thousands of Virginians who won't now get health insurance I have every confidence that Virginians will get the BEST juvenile court judge ever when Puckett's daughter takes her seat. And people in Puckett's district will have the chance to elect a new senator who isn't so obviously for sale.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His new book, Americans Against the City, is due out this summer with Oxford University Press.