Tuesday, October 04, 2005

So Where Do They Keep All That Responsibility?

In a recent press conference in which he announced his latest pick for the Supreme Court, Pres. Bush also told reporters that he will "take responsibility for all the failures at the federal level" for the bungled response to Hurrican Katrina.


Responsibility as Bush uses it here means more or less "blame" but it also has connotations of duty and sober caution. By saying that he'll take responsibility, Bush is saying that he accepts the blame and implying that in so doing he's fulfilling his obligations as an ethical--responsible--leader who values thinking things through deeply and carefully.

But, as is often the case when public figures say "responsibility," the word also has another implicit meaning: "nothing." Partly, this is due to the weasel-wording of the statement. By adding in "at the federal level,"' Bush continues to insist covertly that his appointing an unqualified, unmotivated political ally to head FEMA and not insisting that FEMA have better disaster preparedness plans than it did before 9/11 and gutting FEMA when folding it into Homeland security have nothing to do with the fact that FEMA screwed up massively. Because the problem, goes the implication, wasn't with FEMA but rather with Louisiana and New Orleans. I've already pointed out in earlier posts that local officials do bear some blame in the matter. But not most of the blame, and in no way all of the blame, which is what Bush is hinting at.

Beyond sneaky qualifying phrases, there are big problems with the way the Bush administration uses responsibility and its synonyms. They try to sound serious by talking of taking responsibility while at the same time actually taking nothing serious or significant. Think back to May 2004, when Donald Rumsfeld said that, as Secretary of Defense, he was "accountable" for the abuse at Abu Grahib prison.

So what did Rumsfeld's accountability entail? Did he take responsibility for anything? Did he voluntarily take it on himself to pay a price of any kind price for having set military policy to as to encourage or at least allow torture? Did he even launch an investigation that would reach beyond the grunts on the ground? No. He didn't. His taking of responsibility was an empty formal gesture that actually refused any real responsibility. The logic of his taking responsibility was that since he was at the top of the chain of command, he should technically be held responsible for what his subordinates did. Built into this is the implicit defense that he was at the top of the chain of command, in DC, but the people who actually committed the abuse were at the bottom, in Iraq--meaning you can't really blame him for anything they did so very far away from him. Effectively, he offered himself as a scapegoat and then said he was offering himself as a scapegoat. So you could blame him if you really wanted to, but, gosh, it would be pretty unfair to scapegoat him like that.

This is the same defense Brownie offered when the Republicans called him in to testify about his bungling Katrina. His mistake, he said, "was not realizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional." Again: hi, I'm taking responsibility, by which I mean I'm trying to avoid blame by pointing out that my responsibility is a scapegoating resulting from the incompetence of others. So I'm not actually responsible even though I somehow ended up with all this responsibility in my lap.

Note, of course, that one the reasons for the Brownie hearings (which the Democrats boycotted) was in fact to make Brownie a real scapegoat for Bush--to make the terrible response Brownie's fault, rather than the fault of the guy who hired him, the guy who was willing to say that he was doing a great job even while preparing to send little scapegoat Brownie off into the wilderness.

I find it maddening to watch Bushie after Bushie "take responsibility" as a way of taking credit rather than taking blame. "It's not really my fault," they say, "But I'm pretending it is anyway. You should admire that." We're not supposed to expect that their taking of responsibility will entail any censure, any bad consequences. Instead, we're supposed to pat them on the back for taking one for the team.

And the mindblowing thing is that so often they're not even really taking one for the team. Those swords on which they so nobly, so self-sacrificingly fall often turn out to be collapsible magician's swords. The Bushies fall to the ground and groan theatrically for a few seconds before getting to their feet and going on with their lives, totally untroubled by the responsibility that they allegedly took. In fact, it seems to be part of the magic trick that somehow, during the sword business, the responsibility disappears from sight like a ball from beneath a handkerchief.


At 11:34 PM , Blogger Mike M. said...

I think that the argument for Bush was always, "Sure, he's not to bright, but he's self-aware enough, and well connected enough, to surround himself with the best people." Well, by his second term, the best guy's from his Daddy's administration had left in a humiliating defeat that he couldn't have seen coming (seeya, Colin) and many of the others, like Brownie, were revealed as incompetent cronies. Condi and Rummy are the big survivors, but only because they have brains and canniness and were built for self-preservation.

What sarted Jon's post? The appointment of Miers. Now, many very reputable members of the Supreme Court have lacked experience as a judge. One of the beauties of the system is that some one can go from "never having been a judge," to "here come the judge" by appointment. But most of those non-judges who were brought up were national, intellectual figures in their own right. Miers... she was Bush's tutor. That's all she was. She could have taught civics to any of us... when we were twelve. Even with The Supreme Court at stake, he just appointed a pal of his. I'll post my own thoughts on this impulse later, but, when it comes to Jon's essay about responsibility and what it means, well... he started with the Miers appointment and took it elsewhere. I see the Miers appointment as more of a culmination of patterns, including patterns that Bush's supporters thought he'd reject, once in office. I suspect that Jon and I agree on that but, wherever he, I or you would put Miers on the spectrum, she's an example of our Monkey in Chief's way of doing things.

At 11:10 PM , Blogger Jon E. said...

I think Mike's probably right here and in his subsequent post about why Bush appointed Miers--cronyism combined with a profound intellectual laziness that makes it difficult for him to imagine why anybody who "has a good heart" should also have to be knowledgeable, experienced, and hard-working.

But, sometimes, I think we're starting to see Bush treat the American people like he always treats people who don't back him no matter how spectacularly wrong he is. I'm starting to worry he's started thinking things like, "My approval ratings dropped again? They turned on me? I can take a lot of things. I can take incompetence. I can take corruption. But I can't take disloyalty. The UN turned on me--they get John Bolton. The American people turn on me, I putt a lottery comissioner on the Supreme Court. If my approval ratings drop another 5%, I'm gonna put Brownie in charge of Homeland Security. Fuck with the W, and you get fucked back, beyatch."

Either that, or all that time and effort convincing himself that things are going well in Iraq and that the war there is helping us beat al-Qaeda is actually starting to make him crazy. If he appoints his horse to the Senate, we'll know for sure.


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