responsibility is an essential part of everyday
life, something every parent and child,
every boss and worker, every friend and
colleague wrestle with, or know they should.
But for a president it is quite rare, and
at least in the view of some historians
and government experts, getting rarer, as
a national culture of shifting blame permeates
it was last week that some powerful words
were spoken to the spouses and families
of those who died two and a half years ago
in the terror of Sept. 11.
government failed you. Those entrusted with
protecting you failed you. And I failed
you." The words of apology were unmistakable,
but the face was hard to place. It belonged
to none of the recognizable leaders of the
government - not President Bush or Defense
Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell
or Condoleezza Rice, the national security
adviser. Here was a middle-aged man with
disappearing white hair and an American
flag pinned in his left lapel: a former
middle-level foreign policy official of
three presidential administrations named
Richard A. Clarke.
tried hard," Mr. Clarke told the families
as he testified to a commission looking
into Sept. 11. "But that doesn't matter
because we failed. And for that failure,
I would ask, once all the facts are out,
for your understanding and for your forgiveness."
mea culpa appeared deeply meaningful to
the bereaved families, who thronged around
Mr. Clarke when he completed his testimony.
But President Bush offered no similar statement,
nor did Bill Clinton, for whom Mr. Clarke
had also worked.
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.
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.
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."
commanders, Mr. Reagan said, should not
be punished "for not fully comprehending
the nature of today's terrorist threat."
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.
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."
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.
hours after the World Trade Center towers
crumbled, Bush and Clinton partisans began
blaming each other for the failure to stop
Al Qaeda, and have been doing so ever since
in any venue they can find.
record is actually surprisingly clear, that
there was a series of moments stretching
back from Sept. 11 across at least eight
years when more aggressive actions might
have produced a different outcome that crisp,
blue morning. For example:
1997 a commission led by Vice President
Al Gore recommended steps to tighten airline
security, including tougher screening of
passengers and stronger locks on cockpit
doors. Civil libertarians and the airline
bin Laden, while hardly a household name,
was well known as a threat. (Indeed, this
newspaper ran a front-page series about
him just as the Bush administration was
World Trade Center was already clearly marked
as a target, from the bombing in 1993, and
the idea to use planes as missiles was known
from a disrupted plot to bring down the
who is responsible for not putting all this
together, for failing to avert the tragedy?
The airline industry? The Central Intelligence
Agency? Richard Clarke? Mr. Bush? Mr. Clinton?
most famous presidential keepsake in American
history is arguably a 2½-by-13-inch glass
sign made at the Federal Reformatory at
El Reno, Okla. On one side, the side that
faced the president, it said, "I'm from
Missouri." The other side, the side that
faced visitors to the Oval Office, said,
"The Buck Stops Here."
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
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.
I known," President Bush said the day after
Mr. Clarke's testimony, "that the enemy
was going to use airplanes to strike America,
to attack us, I would have used every resource,
every asset, every power of this government
to protect the American people."
is hard to imagine that anyone - even Mr.
Bush's fiercest critics - doubts that.
Mr. Bush's statement illustrates the transition
from a political culture where accepting
responsibility demonstrated strength to
one in which it exposes weaknesses.
the actions of another young president faced
with a crisis early in his administration.
It was mid-April 1961, and a C.I.A.-organized
invasion of Cuba had collapsed at a place
called the Bay of Pigs.
is an old saying," President John F. Kennedy
said, "that victory has a hundred fathers
and defeat is an orphan." The president
added, "I'm the responsible officer of the
the debacle, Mr. Kennedy's popularity increased.
statesmanship is not always everything it
seems, said Michael Beschloss, a presidential
historian. Even as Kennedy was taking responsibility,
his aides were out quietly - on background
as they say in Washington - blaming the
fiasco on Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had
set the invasion in motion. Eventually,
one Kennedy administration official, Stuart
L. Udall, blamed Eisenhower in public, which
brought a fierce rebuttal from his vice
president, Richard M. Nixon, and forced
the White House to retreat. President Kennedy,
his spokesman, Pierre E. Salinger, said,
bears sole responsibility and wanted everyone
to know it.
those days, a leader took responsibility
in public and his aides spread the blame
only in private. Today, those aides spread
the blame on cable TV and only former mid-level
officials take responsibility. In the culture
of today's politics, presidents may well
be afraid to admit they can't make everything