Never saying you're sorry

I suspect that if you pressed President George W. Bush to offer one piece of moral advice to the youth of America, he would counsel, “You need to take responsibility for your actions.” The phrase is Bush’s verbal factotum. He uses it all the time.

In his days as governor of Texas, when death-penalty appeals from the Pardons Board crossed his desk, Bush would wash his hands, and explain that everyone has to take responsibility for their actions. Before the war in Iraq, he wagged his finger at Saddam and told him that he needed to take responsibility. What exactly does the president mean by his favorite piety? Some of his recent statements make me wonder.

In late July, Bush replied to questions about the accuracy of his State of the Union remarks on the alleged sale of uranium by Niger to Iraq. Prior to the press conference, he had responded to such queries by directing suspicion toward CIA director George Tenet and his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice. In this media session, however, he stepped up to the mike and said, “I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course.”

Usually taking responsibility implies forgoing excuses and explanations, but within a couple of sentences Bush was off on a full-scale defense of the Iraq War, and by implication the claim that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction. So the intelligence reports about uranium sales were not really mistaken. It was evident when Bush announced that he was taking responsibility, he really meant that he did not think that he had done anything wrong.

Some of my students would seem to agree with Bush’s use of the rhetoric of responsibility. Last spring, I performed an exercise with my philosophy classes. I listed a few of the platitudes that Americans live by and asked them how they understood these phrases. When it came to, “You need to take responsibility for your actions,” students agreed that the expression was common moral coinage. Still, no one was eager to tell me what it meant. So I hectored a little, “Do you always go around muttering phrases you don’t understand?” Finally, one intrepid undergrad raised his hand and submitted, “Taking responsibility means taking credit for your actions.” That sounded too easy to me.

Except when used as a defensive ploy, I have always understood taking responsibility to connote the acknowledgement of a mistake, as in “I will take the blame.” It would not make any sense to declare that you take responsibility for a triumph. Indeed, it would be odd for someone to announce, “I take responsibility for the great job that I did.” Yet whenever Bush takes personal responsibility, as he did many times during the war, it was always with a swagger, as if to say, “You may think this bombing campaign is a mistake and morally wrong, but it’s not.” It is almost as if Bush assumes his personal responsibility pose whenever he means to deflect personal culpability.

Last month at the United Nations, Bush had the perfect platform for an act of moral ownership. Though he had defied the UN by prosecuting the war without its sanction, he was now eager for it to share in the cost and burden of bringing peace and stability to Iraq. Speaking to the General Assembly, the president had the cue for his favorite line and could easily have said, “I take responsibility for the fact that I made the case for war in Iraq based on the assumption that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It now seems as though I might have been wrong. If I was, I apologize for the mistake.”

Or again, he might have confessed, “I take responsibility for the levels of frustration, anger, and violence in Iraq. I miscalculated the difficulties involved in stabilizing that country after a full-scale invasion. I am confident that we will get the job done but it is going to be harder and more risky than I anticipated.” That would have been taking responsibility. Instead, the president tried to make it seem as though the UN owed us a debt of thanks for saving its credibility. Ignoring the lack of evidence for WMD, Bush declared, “The Security Council was right to demand that Iraq destroy its illegal weapons of mass destruction....And because there were consequences, because a coalition of nations acted to defend the peace and credibility of United Nations, Iraq is free.”

Maybe I read him wrong, but it seems to me that Bush likes to fancy himself an honest and straight talker. Yet I fear that he is too afraid of appearing weak to ever take responsibility in the old-fashioned sense of that phrase. When he fails to own up to mistakes that he has made, however, and pretends to be taking the blame for actions he does not really believe to be blameworthy, he begins to sound a bit like another president parsing the verb “to be” before a grand jury. end

Published in the 2003-10-10 issue: 

Gordon Marino is professor of philosophy and director of the Hong/Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His most recent book is The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age (HarperOne).

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