What does "take responsibility for" mean?
"Passing the buck" is what people like to try to do when they get in trouble. Normally, in any vertical organization, the "buck" is passed downward until it lands on someone incapable of defending himself by passing it further downward. A very recent instance of this involved the firing of eight federal prosecutors for what seems to have been purely political reasons.
The federal government has 93 prosecutors, all of whom hold appointed positions. It is understood by all that a President has the right to fire all 93 of them if he likes, especially if he does so at the beginning of his term, as President Clinton did. This is an instance of firing the existing prosecutors for a political reason -- they were Republicans in Clinton's case -- but not for acting or failing to act in some way that is politically displeasing to the President. The idea here is that Presidents get to put anyone he or she wants in these positions but after doing so, these prosecutors are expected to treat everyone in the same way, whether they are Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, of this or that ethnic group, etc. The integrity of our federal system of justice depends on their independence among other things.
Two problems have emerged. The first is that some of the fired prosecutors claim they were fired for specific political reasons which is a very bad thing. The other is that it seems that the explanation given to Congress by the Department of Justice for these firings was false or misleading. This is even worse. Cover ups are always worse than the thing being covered up, something you would think all political people will have learned by now. As with other cases with this Administration, the issue is how far up the chain of command does responsibility actually lie. We saw this with the Abu Ghraib prison prisoner abuse scandal (who made the policies and who gave the orders involving how prisoners should be interrogated) and the Plame affair (was it Cheney or Rove or just Libby who is responsible for the "outing" of Plame). Of course, it is not just this Administration that likes to pass the buck downward until it lands comfortably on someone.
What interests me is the phenomenon of people taking responsibility for actions but not suffering any consequences for what it is they are taking responsibility for. In the current case, the Attorney General acknowledged that "mistakes were made" in the way the department handled and explained the firings and he said
"I accept that responsibility," Gonzales said during a press conference. "And my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to assess accountability, and to make improvements so the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur in the future."So, Mr. Gonzales accepts the responsibility for this mess but apparently not the blame for it.
There is a very important distinction to be made here If you accept the blame for something, then you will normally suffer real consequences. You may go to prison, as with the enlisted people who worked at Abu Ghraib or Scooter Libby, or be forced to resign from your position, as with Kyle Sampson in the current case. But in many cases, it seems to be possible to get away with accepting responsibility for an action without suffering any consequences. So far, Mr. Gonzales has managed to pass the buck down to Mr. Sampson. There are elements of Congress, including especially Democrats, who want Mr. Gonzales to resign.
The young are told over and over that they must accept responsibility for their actions. They are told that they must be accountable for their actions. In the current Administration, what they are teaching us is that there is a real distinction between accepting responsibility and being accountable. You can do the one without doing the other. Bush fired Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was held accountable for the failures of American policy in Iraq. President Bush merely accepted responsibility. Harry Truman had a sign on his desk saying "The Buck Stops Here." George Bush ought to put one on his desk. And put one on the desk of the new Attorney General once Gonzales is gone.