The Buck Stops ... Where?





Michael Oreskes, in the NYT (March 28, 2004):

It is one thing for a deputy at the National Security Council to accept blame on behalf of not one but several administrations, an act perched between admirable and presumptuous. But it is quite something else for a president of the United States to say he is sorry.

In October 1983, terrorists in Lebanon drove a truckload of explosives into a building housing American marines, killing 241. That December, a Defense Department commission prepared to release a report castigating officers in the chain of command for failing to safeguard their troops.

A copy was sent to President Reagan before its release. He read through it, David R. Gergen, then an aide, recalled, and with little discussion headed for the press room. "If there is to be blame," Mr. Reagan said before the assembled corps, "it properly rests here in this office and with this president. And I accept responsibility for the bad as well as the good."

The commanders, Mr. Reagan said, should not be punished "for not fully comprehending the nature of today's terrorist threat."

There was some criticism at the time that Mr. Reagan had pre-empted the military disciplinary process. But over all, Mr. Gergen said, the acceptance of responsibility for something that happened during his term vastly improved Mr. Reagan's status with the military and strengthened him for the rest of his presidency.

"Every time I've seen a president or his team take responsibility it has had a salutary effect," Mr. Gergen said. "The reason why it has become so rare is the way the blame game is played. It can be so ferocious that any time they admit the slightest mistake it's going to be exploited by the other side."

Of course, accepting responsibility, let alone blame, for the events of Sept. 11 is on a scale different from virtually anything else a modern president has had to deal with. Certainly, an argument could be made that Sept. 11 is more analogous to Pearl Harbor than to Beirut, and Franklin D. Roosevelt never accepted responsibility for that sneak attack. Indeed, he talked the Republicans out of making it an issue in the 1944 campaign, saying it would hurt the war effort....

To Harry S. Truman that meant accepting responsibility for making tough decisions, including firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But it did not necessarily mean expressing regret for them later. He was proud of saying he never lost sleep over his decision to drop the atom bomb, and 10 years later when he was invited to Japan he said he would go only if he did not have to kiss the posterior portion of any Japanese citizen's anatomy. (He didn't go.)

Mr. Bush made it clear last week that he was more in the Roosevelt than the Reagan mode of the responsible commander in chief, offering a narrow test of presidential responsibility in the Sept. 11 context.

 


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