We writers, especially we writers who focus on politics, appreciate fine speechwriting. Peggy Noonan and Rick Hertzberg are two of my favorite former presidential speechwriters. And, it would be impossible for any wordsmith not to admire President Obama’s speechwriter, Jon Favreau, who has penned some memorable lines for his boss.
In the past few days, the White House has clearly been looking for the right way to speak about the foiled terrorist attack on Christmas Day. Yesterday, the President gave what was both his best and worst stab at it.
The best part of his late afternoon address was the section where he echoed an argument we have made in these pages, namely that the terrorists win if we allow ourselves to overturn our standards of civilization. "Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans," the president said. "Because great and proud nations don’t hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want." Indeed, that is who our adversaries are: Mistrustful suspicious people who look to modernity as a threat to their medieval way of life. For all my problems with modernity, and they are many and some of them are indelible, ours is a civilization that adjudicates its differences by means of the ballot not the bullet, and that confronts its difficulties with reason not with zealotry.
But, President Obama also employed one of the most useless phrases in the current political lexicon: "I take responsibility." This phrase was once a proud expression of the idea of responsible government, and it was accompanied by a letter of resignation. In parliamentary systems, cabinet ministers take responsibility by resigning when something bad happens on their watch, whether they are the actual cause of the bad thing or not. The idea is that responsible government, accountable not just to the electorate but to the facts, is more important than precise calculations of blame.
In the past twenty years, of course, "I take responsibility" has been a way to end discussion and divert attention. After the raid in Waco, Texas in 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno "took responsibility" for the failure to protect innocent lives, but there was no apparent consequence to the assumption of responsibility. That is not responsibility. That is a dodge. President Obama is well advised to avoid this phrase in the future except to commend it to those who are about to tender their resignation.
This useless phrase is different from the President’s invocation of a line first uttered by Harry Truman, "the buck stops here." Yes it does. If government fails to execute a policy, or executes the wrong policy, in anyway, it is in some sense the responsibility of the chief executive. He cannot dodge, but his accountability will be meted out at the next election. In the meantime, it is critical to the exercise of the responsibility the voters gave him in the last election that he fire those who mess up. Yes, the problem in the current case may have been systemic, but someone is responsible for those systems, and ultimately it is the President himself and the people he appoints who must fix them and fix them fast.
One of the difficulties in addressing the Christmas Day bombing is that anytime we are dealing with an intelligence failure, there is much that cannot be said. We do not want our adversaries to know our strategies or tactics, still less how those strategies or tactics have failed. "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies," Churchill once observed with his characteristic ability to turn a phrase. This conflicts with the openness and transparency that is an obvious and important value in a free and democratic society. Unlike the assigning of responsibility, this is a tension with which every President and Prime Minister must live. And, his speechwriters deserve a bonus if they can find a way to give expression to that tension.