Sunday, March 6, 2016

On Taking Responsibility

Flipping through the digital pages of the online edition of the Washington Post the other day, I chanced upon a "Fact Checker" piece that examined accusations of complicity of the Michigan Governor's office in the poisoning of the water supply that feeds the city of Flint. It's not much of a surprise to see such a piece, after all the incident is much in the news these days and being that this is the political season the trading of accusations of malfeasance, corruption and incompetence, always a popular subject of conversation in political circles, is, if anything, amplified in both frequency and volume of late.

This piece looked in particular at the charge leveled by Hillary Clinton that the tainting of the water supply in the aforementioned Michigan town was a result of the governor "wanting to save a little money." Ultimately the charge was awarded a score "two Pinocchios" out of a possible four, meaning, I suppose, that the glass is either half full for the claim, or half empty, depending on what side of the political spectrum your allegiances happen to reside.

But aside from the accusations and counter-accusations, the damning and the mitigating evidence, the punches laded and the punches blocked, what struck me as most curious about the piece was the juxtaposition of the following two statements. 

The first, early in the piece, is a nutshell summary of the Fact Checker's findings:
"There are signs pointing to decisions possibly being made in the governor’s office, but a direct link to the governor himself is hard to find."
The second, is taken from a statement read by Ari Adler, Governor Rick Snyder's communications director:
"Gov. Snyder has apologized, taken responsibility for what happened and has begun a top to bottom culture change in Michigan state government,”
Harry Truman, 33rd President of the United States, famously kept a sign on his desk at the Oval Office that read "The Buck Stops Here." It was meant to reassure voters and the public that in his administration there would be no shirking of responsibility, no "passing of the buck" as it were. The failures of the administration would be acknowledged as failures of the President himself. The phrase is as iconic to and colors popular perceptions of the Truman administration as the legend of the cherry tree informs popular views of George Washington and his upright moral fiber. It has also become a kind of litmus test of an administration's trustworthiness and willingness to claim responsibility for its failures. The following exchange delivered by George W. Bush press secretary Scott McClellan in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina fiasco is just one such example of the many we could produce:
Q ... First, just to get you on the record, where does the buck stop in this administration?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President.
Q All right. So he will be held accountable as the head of the government for the federal response that he's already acknowledged was inadequate and unacceptable?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President's most important responsibility is the safety and security of the American people. He talks about that often. That is his most important responsibility. ..."
George W. Bush paid an enormous political price for the Federal Government's bungling of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, perhaps no further proof is needed than the various attempts that Republicans have made over the years to label some incident or other "Obama's Katrina." But the truth is, that President Bush didn't pay that price because he accepted responsibility for Katrina, but rather because the aid effort his administration undertook was so woefully inadequate to the task and his initial response to the disaster so inadequate that any attempt to deflect responsibility would have been met with disdainful laughter by all but the most sycophantic of supporters.

Indeed, there's a good case to be made that the formal acceptance of responsibility is more often an attempt deflect actual responsibility than embrace it, as when, for instance, John Pointdexter echoed Harry Truman's famous phrase in an attempt to shield Ronald Reagan from responsibility for the Iran/Contra scandal.