For U.S. presidents there is a high bar when it comes to accountability. It was put there by Harry Truman in the form of a frontier aphorism about accepting responsibility. He placed it on his Oval Office desk for all to see. “The buck stops here!” it read, a reminder to Truman and all who came after him that it is unseemly for a commander-in-chief to shirk this duty, or to make excuses when things go wrong.
“The greatest part of the president’s job is to make decisions—big ones and small ones, dozens of them almost every day,” Truman explained in his farewell address. “The papers may circulate around the government for a while, but they finally reach this desk. And then, there's no place else for them to go. The president—whoever he is—has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”
Yet, it’s also human nature to try and deflect culpability by pointing out others’ shortcomings—so much so that Jesus of Nazareth warned his followers against it. And presidents are all too human, as Americans have been reminded in the last few weeks watching Joe Biden pass the buck for the violent and chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan. He hasn’t reminded anyone of Harry Truman.
“I take responsibility for the decision,” Biden said Tuesday. On Aug. 16, he was equally explicit: “I’m the president of the United States, the buck stops with me.” Except that he has blamed, in turn, faulty intelligence, Afghanistan’s president, the Afghan army and, of course, Donald Trump. Most incongruously, Biden even blamed the Americans left behind in Kabul who couldn’t make it past Taliban checkpoints to the airport. “Since March, we reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan, with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan,” he said. “All the way back as far as March.”
Among those who haven’t appreciated Biden’s buck-passing are the families of the 10 U.S. Marines and three other service members killed by a suicide bomber at the Kabul airport. These Gold Star families are not alone: Biden’s job approval rating has plummeted in the past two weeks. Voters judge presidents by their actions, even when the results are beyond their ability to control. But it also seems that many Americans respect leaders who own up to their mistakes.
Doing so, however, cuts against a modern political ethos in which politicians are relentlessly on the offensive and always blaming the other side. Although this wasn’t always the culture in U.S. politics, the tension between taking the heat and wanting to passing the buck is not new.
In the aftermath of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs debacle, for example, John F. Kennedy sounded resigned to accepting blame. In April 1961, during the 10th press conference of his three-month-old presidency, Kennedy acknowledged as much while answering a question from legendary NBC correspondent Sander Vanocur about why information wasn’t more forthcoming from the administration about the disastrous attempt to invade Cuba.
“There’s an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan,” Kennedy noted ruefully. “Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I'm the responsible officer of the government…”
But almost immediately, Kennedy aides gave background briefings to reporters in which they pointed fingers at Kennedy’s predecessor. And while it was true that the CIA planned this ill-conceived Cuba adventure under Dwight Eisenhower’s tenure in the White House, it was Kennedy who gave the go-ahead. When Stewart Udall, a member of Kennedy’s Cabinet, made the mistake of publicly faulting Eisenhower, Richard Nixon—who’d been Ike’s vice president and JFK’s 1960 opponent—issued a blistering public statement. It was left to White House press secretary Pierre Salinger to clearly say that, yes, the buck stopped with President Kennedy.
JFK was hardly alone. Some of America’s most popular postwar presidents have struggled living up to Harry Truman’s example. Their first instinct is usually best, but they don’t always stick to it.
After the horrific Lebanon barracks bombing in 1983, a suicide attack that killed more than 20 times the number of Marines lost recently at the Kabul airport, a statement was drafted by White House aides that seemed to hold the military commanders accountable. President Reagan refused to give it. Instead, he ordered that no military officer be court-martialed or disciplined and told the White House press corps: “If there is to be blame, it properly rests here in this office and with this president. And I accept responsibility for the bad as well as the good.”
By 1987, during the endless recriminations for the scandal known as “Iran-contra,” Reagan wavered from this path, however. White House aides quietly told reporters that the president was “gratified” when former National Security Adviser John Poindexter admitted that he had concealed from Reagan that profits from Iranian arms sales had been diverted to Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras. “The buck stops with me,” Poindexter said.
But no American had ever voted to elect Adm. Poindexter president and his mea culpa was widely panned. Reagan had a convenient habit of not remembering decisions that turned out badly. This excuse was a double-edged sword for a 76-year-old president. It skirted the line of admitting that he was out to lunch, as satirist Art Buchwald pointed out wryly. “The White House has changed its strategy in regards to what the president knew about the contra connection and when he knew it,” Buchwald wrote. “Originally, the president didn’t know anything. He didn’t even know where Nicaragua is.”
The larger scandal, although this point seemed to elude Democrats and the media, wasn’t the contra angle. It was that the administration had sold lethal armaments to the ayatollahs at a time the U.S. was leading an embargo against Iran in hopes of retrieving American hostages. Ultimately, when confronted with the evidence that he approved this ill-fated scheme, Reagan fessed up, albeit reluctantly.
“A few months ago I told the American people that I did not trade arms for hostages,” Reagan said in a March 4, 1987, Oval Office address. “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.”
In 2012, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, protesters demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Meanwhile, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was overrun by an armed and well-organized mob that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. In the aftermath, President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and leading Capitol Hill Democrats pointed fingers in every direction other than the White House. At first, they conflated the two events in Cairo and Benghazi. Then, they blamed some schmuck in California for making an anti-Muslim video and dispatched U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to appear on all the networks to peddle this dubious story.
When finally conceding that the Libyan attack was a well-planned operation that had nothing to do with Cairo militants who’d never even heard of the video in question, nobody in the White House stepped forward except to point fingers at the State Department.
“We weren’t told they wanted more security,” Biden insisted during an Oct. 11 vice presidential debate. Getting the message, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton channeled John Poindexter. “I take responsibility. I'm in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world—275 posts,” she told CNN. “The president and the vice president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals.”
That makes sense, but Clinton didn’t really mean it; she was just protecting the White House. After an independent review board found that the State Department had ignored requests for enhanced security, the “responsibility” for this disaster fell to four unnamed careerists who faced some undescribed “discipline” and the resignation of an undersecretary who remained as a consultant to the department. In the Obama administration, one might say, the buck stopped with a dedicated career public servant named Eric Boswell.
It will surprise no one that Donald Trump was almost uniquely the un-Harry Truman. A man who actually boasted that he’d never read a presidential biography, Trump didn’t even give lip service to the ethos espoused, if often in the breach, by his predecessors.
In January 2019, his administration played chicken with congressional Democrats over funding his beloved (by him) border wall. The Democrats said they weren’t going to appropriate the money and then stuck to their guns. On the 20th day of the partial government shutdown that resulted, Trump was asked on the White House driveway whether the buck stopped with him on the shutdown. “The buck stops with everybody,” Trump replied before launching into an attack on the Democrats’ record on crime.
In a nice play on words, one CNN wag quipped that the buck really stopped for 80,000 federal employees not getting paychecks. And though Trump had a valid point about the shutdown, this attitude would foreshadow his style of leadership when things really got scary: i.e., when COVID-19 hit these shores.
Asked by NBC’s Kristin Welker whether he bore any responsibility for the CDC’s botched and tardy rollout of a coronavirus test, Trump replied, “No, I don’t take responsibility at all.” He then added mysteriously, “We were given rules, regulations, and specifications from a different time.”
In a subsequent tweet, Trump amplified, “President Obama made changes that only complicated matters further.”
So, for Trump, the buck stopped with Obama. Joe Biden has returned the favor in the wake of the awful Afghanistan pullout. As things started to unravel, the 46th president said it was the 45th who had left the Taliban “in the strongest military position since 2001.”
Biden went on to blame many others (though never himself) while adding a new wrinkle to the presidential avoid-the-blame game. This disaster wasn’t my fault, he said, but didn’t it all turn out great? He was talking about the airlift efforts, and in evaluating himself, this president likes to grade on the curve. The mission, Biden proclaimed, was an “extraordinary success.”