Rod Dreher

The president said today that the failure of the government to stop the failed Christmas bomber is ultimately his own. We’ve come to expect this from our leaders — the ritual claiming of responsibility. I find it an empty gesture, unless it’s accompanied by an action that actually costs somebody something. To be sure, the president’s speech was impressive, and I don’t think necessarily that somebody should lose his or her job over this. Fox’s Neal Cavuto has been banging the drum for someone to get fired over this, but Gov. Haley Barbour, the Mississippi Republican, said it’s bad public policy to fire people every time a bad decision is made. (Cavuto asked Catholic priest Father Robert Sirico if he thought authorities ought to be fired if catastrophe occurred on their watch; I was very curious about how Fr. Sirico was going to answer that question; he gingerly suggested that it might be good for someone in such a circumstance to offer his resignation).
Anyway, I don’t want to comment on whether or not the president did the right thing today, but rather to ask what it means for a person in authority — a president, a bishop, a CEO, a university president, et alia — to come out and claim responsibility for a massive screw-up. I agree with Barbour: resignation shouldn’t be easily sought, or offered, as a general rule. But sometimes honor requires it, or requires someone to pay a significant price for the mistake. It seems to me that too often these days this kind of responsibility-taking by authority figures is an empty gesture meant to quell public criticism. Gov. Barbour did bring up Gen. Eisenhower’s drafting his resignation speech the night before D-Day, in case the invasion failed. Ike knew that if he failed in that undertaking, he wouldn’t have the authority to lead the Allied armies any longer. Barbour — who, again, was surprisingly supportive of Obama’s response today — suggested that today, we have lost that sense of honor that would compel a leader who has overseen a large and significant failure to step aside. I feel that he’s right, and that more and more, people feel that they shouldn’t really be held accountable in a meaningful way for failure.
What do you think? What would make saying “the buck stops here” meaningful in a given situation, as opposed to mere PR? Please let’s discuss this not in terms of partisan politics, but in terms of cultural mores related to guilt, shame and authority.

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