Many U.S. presidents and their administrations become associated with catchphrases. In recent decades, we have Harry Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here,” Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” and George H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips: no new taxes,” to name just a few. At best, these phrases indicate a strong moral stand; at worse, they may foreshadow a catastrophic political failure.
For our current president and his administration, the catchphrase seems to be, “I take responsibility.” In a vacuum, one might think this would be a noble statement, embodying courage and the willingness to acknowledge one’s mistakes and accept the punishment or other costs for them. Unfortunately, when a member of the Bush Administration says the phrase, it actually means that he or she will suffer no consequences for the action being described. It’s almost as if the speaker is taking credit rather than blame for the misdeed. If anything, it’s not noble; it’s bragging.
Let’s look at just a few instances where this catchphrase is used. President Bush “took responsibility” during a press conference in September 2005 for the federal government’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina. What happened to the president as a result of this responsibility-taking? Nothing. There were no political or financial consequences, so his statement was meaningless, and the victims of Katrina continue to try to rebuild their lives and homes with insufficient federal aid.
President Bush, though, is far from alone among his administration in using the “R” word without consequence. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who earlier in his career wrote memoranda authorizing torture of prisoners in U.S. custody, has more recently come under scrutiny for the firing of a number of U.S. attorneys for apparently political (and therefore illegal) reasons. On May 10, 2007, in front of the House Judiciary Committee, the Attorney General said with regard to the firing of David Iglesias of New Mexico, “I accept responsibility for this decision.” Again, responsibility but no accountability; Mr. Gonzales remains the Attorney General, in charge of a Justice Department whose motivations are apparently political rather than impartial.
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used the catchphrase as well, in his May 2004 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee with regard to the prisoner abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Said Rumsfeld, “As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them. And I take full responsibility.” Rumsfeld, though, kept his job for another 2 ½ years, and when he finally resigned, he did so without any reference to Abu Ghraib and certainly without offering to take on the jail time of those soldiers who have been tried and convicted for the Abu Ghraib incidents. Where, then, is the accountability to which Mr. Rumsfeld referred?
Going back even further to July of 2003, President Bush and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice had a “two-fer” of responsibility taking when it came to the false statement in the State of the Union Address that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. Ms. Rice said, “I certainly feel personal responsibility for this entire episode,” and President Bush said in response to a question about the speech, “I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course.” As for accountability, though, those who paid the price for that statement excluded the president or Ms. Rice, but included the U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians who have been injured and killed as a result of our invasion and occupation of Iraq. Also included was former CIA covert agent Valerie Plame Wilson, whose husband Joe Wilson’s expose of the false statement led to her being outed to the press by members of the Bush Administration. (Of course, those in the administration who outed Ms. Wilson have not suffered any consequences for that action, as evidenced by the unsurprising commutation by President Bush of Scooter Libby’s sentence for obstruction of justice in the investigation of that incident.)
At an October 2006 press conference, President Bush clarified what taking responsibility is supposed to mean. “People do have to take responsibility for the decisions they make in life. I take responsibility for the decisions I make….[I]n order to make this country work, and to make democracy succeed, there's [sic] got to be high standards, and people must be held to account to achieve those standards.” Apparently, he understands that responsibility is paired with accountability. It is odd, then, that that concept has not translated into reality for the president and his appointees, who have repeatedly taken actions that have done tremendous harm to our nation and its laws, while remaining in office and uncensured.
In its 2004 national platform, the Republican Party quoted President Bush as saying, “The measure of compassion is more than good intentions, it is good results. By being involved and by taking responsibility upon ourselves, we gain something….” Based on how the president and his administration have “taken responsibility,” apparently what is gained by doing so is a free pass.