Harry Truman is credited with saying it first and of putting it on his desk in the Oval Office. But it hasn’t been heard around here for some time. In fact, “the buck stops here,” has all but disappeared from presidential usage, replaced by “I can’t think of any [mistakes] at the moment.”
Mainly occupants of the Oval Office have been masterfully obfuscating errors in judgment by citing exigent circumstances not of their making - like George W. Bush telling us if he stopped his plane in New Orleans it would have disrupted the emergency efforts causing even more pain for those poor citizens. Or Bill Clinton swearing he didn’t “have sex with that woman” because what was done doesn’t technically qualify or Jimmy Carter’s blaming the “national malaise” for his problems.
But suddenly a chief executive readily admits he “screwed up” in trying to apply a double ethics standard to his Cabinet appointments, setting a new level of admission that, like other things Barack Obama has done, is enough to strike fear in the hearts of Washington’s longtime establishment. So unusual is this that a longtime columnist colleague asked his editors to hold up his piece until he could hear it for himself on television, and commentary pieces submitted were being hastily rewritten throughout the diminishing newspaper world.
Change, it seems, actually may just be around the corner, at least at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Whether or not those at the other end will be as easily persuaded to follow suit remains to be seen.
Now that Mr. Obama has assumed the position without excuse for his public spanking less than three weeks into his tenure, what next? Can we expect the next errant official to plead guilty to doing the same? Probably not, but for a few moments let’s bask in the rarity of the event and hope something new is afoot.
One should not consider that taking the blame for ignoring former Sen. Tom Daschle’s income tax indiscretions was an easy task for him. Gone from his Cabinet is the person he truly believed had the best chance of convincing the health-care industry and the national legislature on the urgent need for basic reform, a top Obama priority.
For that reason alone, the new president seemed ready to set aside his pledge of a new standard of ethics, an act of generosity and self-service that he now promises will not recur. Furthermore, the distraction comes at a time he is desperately trying to massage a viable economic package through an increasingly dubious Congress.
There is, of course, another old adage about cutting one’s losses that applies here. Hunkering down with a problem like this seldom works and Mr. Obama seems to have grasped that quickly. It would have been easy to place the responsibility for the Daschle situation and other blunders on his transition team and on the persons he had named to his Cabinet in good faith.
Not doing so enhances his credibility, makes him a bit more human than the messianic image his followers attached to him, gives him a new aura of fairness and forgiveness and gets the whole thing over much quicker than it would otherwise. Taking one’s medicine so to speak is a much-admired trait in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Former House Speaker New Gingrich, certainly no stranger to adverse publicity, told reporters at breakfast the other morning that Mr. Obama is finding out quickly that managing the nation’s affairs is far more difficult than conducting a campaign for election, which he said Mr. Obama did as splendidly as any candidate in recent history. If the president continues to admit his mistakes honestly, he will go a long way toward making this horribly difficult job easier.
Barring a seance with Truman’s ghost, which like those of other past presidents, reportedly haunt the White House, perhaps he at least should resurrect Truman’s old desk sign. That tough old bird would be flattered.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.