Please Govern Responsibly


In the past couple of years, George Bush has repeatedly talked about how he “takes responsibility” for this scandal or that problem. But has he ever really taken the blame? Or is it all just words?

Comments from the president and the attorney general over the past few days have me thinking about what “motto” best represents the current administration. What will be on the Bush administration’s tombstone when W’s term mercifully ends in 668 days? (Go here to keep track of when our national nightmare comes to a close.)

“Mission Accomplished”? “Didn’t Care About Black People”? “Heckuva Job”?

Right now, the mantra seems to be, “Mistakes were made.” How great would that look on a gravestone? “R.I.P. Bush Administration 2001-2009: Mistakes Were Made.”

That’s a recent talking point currently being heavily hammered home by both Alberto Gonzalez and Bush (and echoed by other conservative lapdogs) regarding the dismissal of several U.S. attorneys who, some are alleging, were simply too “politically incorrect,” in that they didn’t correctly do what the administration wanted them to do, politically.

It’s far from the first time this kind of statement has been made. Look online and you can find innumerable editorials and essays about “personal responsibility” and its relationship to the White House, Republican leadership, the FBI and other political and governing institutions. The opinion pieces started coming out about two years ago — when the GOP memo saying, “Just say you did it, it doesn’t mean anything” was apparently released – but you could take some of those pieces from 2005, change a word or two and they’d be perfectly appropriate today.

“Mistakes were made” uses the passive voice, indicating that errors occurred, but by whom is left ambiguous. It’s a clever device, as is “I take full responsibility.” Notice how it’s not “I am responsible.” Taking responsibility is apparently different from being responsible in the GOP lexicon.

This concept of taking responsibility but not blame can be tracked back to another president, one whose name often pops up when discussion of Bush’s legacy ensues. Early on in the Watergate investigations, Nixon promised he would take responsibility for the actions of his underlings, saying “There can be no whitewash in the White House.” He also promised to see to it that those involved “bear the liability and pay the penalty.” This came after several resignations and firings. But Nixon stayed in the White House — at least until he could no longer deflect attention away from himself by saying that he “takes responsibility.” A year and a half later, when it became crystal clear that Nixon was more involved than he let on, he became the first president to resign.

We should be so lucky.

More recently, the Mark Foley page-diddling scandal caused another conservative bigwig, then House Speaker Dennis Hastert, to play games with the blame.

“The bottom line is that we’re taking responsibility, because, ultimately, as someone has said in Washington before, the buck stops here,” Hastert said in a press conference immediately following the revelations that Foley might have been involved in improper conduct with teenage pages (and allegations that many in Congress knew about it). But later Hastert added, “I said I haven’t done anything wrong, obviously.” The media declared, “Hastert takes responsibility!” but they failed to mention the second quote. Again, taking responsibility clearly has a different meaning for some people. For politicians, it seems they are simply empty words, like a prostitue who says, “I love you” to every person she sleeps with.

In January of this year, in an address to the nation, Bush declared, “Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.” He was talking about Iraq at the time, but he could have been referring to the response to Katrina or any of the other scandals that have plagued the administration.

Some again clamored that Bush was finally being accountable, which is what liberal pundits and officials have been asking for all along. But how Bush has taken responsibility remains unclear. No doubt he thinks he is correcting the mistakes made in Iraq, but being accountable is more than just saying, “Yeah, dump all the blame on me, but then fuck off and let me do what I want.” In the offices of the most powerful man in the world (allegedly), shouldn’t “taking responsibility” mean (to use his words) “smoking out the evildoers” — in other words, finding out who is directly responsible and getting rid of the problem. It’s funny (in a sad way) — Bush said that line about “smoking ’em out” about 9/11’s initiators. And the man perceived to be most directly responsible has yet to be “smoked out” of anywhere.

If I were the manager at a Burger King and I stole $500 out of the cash register, could I get away with just saying, “The money is missing and I take responsibility for it,” and then go about my day-to-day business (which might or might not involve stealing more money out of the register)? That analogy might be flimsy, but blame and responsibility are actually big topics when it comes to teaching management skills (though perhaps not as much in fast-food restaurant management). Taking responsibility is seen as good leadership; placing blame is seen as a way to guarantee failure for everyone involved. The bottom line is to fix the problem.

But someone in the biggest management position in the world shouldn’t be following mandates from a “How to Be an Efficient Manager in Two Easy Steps” book. The government should be held to a higher standard. The president should have to be accountable to us, the citizens he works for. He and his people should have to tell the truth. And more and more of us are feeling that, to be accountable, Bush not only has to take the blame – he has to take the fall, too.

Bush’s failure to quickly get rid of the source of problems suggests that a) he knows he is the source (or at least a knowing participant or observer) or b) he’s protecting his infrastructure, which would crumble without key players (Rove, Cheney, etc.). Thus, we see expendable scapegoats emerging with every scandal.

Here’s a Bush quotation from a news conference about Katrina: “To the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong.” Again he “takes responsibility,” but the lack of follow-up (besides throwing Mike “Brownie” Brown to the lions) suggests that he did so only by saying he did. The phrasing has been streamlined in the past two years – to simply “Mistakes were made; I take responsibility” — but the emptiness of the promise remains glaring.

Like Nixon, Bush says he takes responsibility, but the issue of who is really to blame is never addressed. But maybe Nixon isn’t where all of this “blame game” stuff is coming from. Maybe it comes from an even higher power — God himself. The Bible (the one book I actually believe Bush has read) contains many parables about responsibility. Everyone seemed to actually pay for their sins. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the snake, the snake probably blamed acid reflux. God apparently holds each of us responsible for our own sin, and that often comes with some sort of punishment – the snake had to crawl on its belly, Adam had to go to work (no more 24-hour naked siestas for him!) and Eve was saddled with dealing with the excruciating pain of childbirth.

Had Bush been God, the treacherous trio would have had a finger wagged in their face, but then they would have been sent back to the garden to go about their business the next day.

Comedian David Frye, most famous for his Nixon impersonations, unintentionally and satirically summed up the current administration’s approach to blame and responsibility on his 1973 album, Richard Nixon: A Fantasy.

This line — which bloggers have been throwing around a lot the past couple of years — is particularly relevant: “As commander in chief, I’m responsible. But I’m not to blame. Let me explain the difference: People who are to blame go to jail. People who are responsible do not.”

— Mike Breen

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5 Comments on “Please Govern Responsibly”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    How’s this for a motto (read or saw these somewhere):
    “More corrupt than Nixon — and not nearly as smart.”
    Or:
    “January 21, 2009 — end of an error.”

  2. Kenny Says:

    This post ties in well with the previous one about hearings about lying to save face over a sexual indescretion vs. ones about lying to harm political enemies. The dems now have the ability to force accountability. Let’s hope they follow through.

  3. FOXYROXY Says:

    i was just thinking about this this morning on my way to work, listening to an NPR report about Gonzales.

    Every single time this stuff happens, somebody goes down, but it’s never the big 3–bush, cheney, rove.

    if i were in washington, i wouldn’t want to work for GW–because basically it means that when the crap hits the fan, you’re the one going down. Look at “scooter,” look at “brownie,” and now, gonzales–what is his nickname in the administration?–bascially, if GW gives you a nickname and tells you you’re doing the right thing, you should pack up and move to canada, cos it means you’ll be fired and/or indicted within a fortnight.

  4. citybeat Says:

    Gonzales=Gonzo. I guarantee it. Bush isn’t very good with nicknames either. But I did kind of like “Stretch” (for Dick Keil, the former Bloomberg News reporter — he’s 6foot five! Get it?) and, of course, Turd Blossom (for Rove, because everything he touches sprouts shit, I guess).

    -breen

  5. FOXYROXY Says:

    Don’t insult my favorite Muppet, Breen.

    I cannot wait to see how that whole Karl Rove subpoena thing plays out. And Harriet Miers–can they make her swear under oath that she’ll tone her eyeliner down? Fer reals.


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