December 20, 2005
Enough. Let's Try 'Accountability.'
By Richard Cohen

You may not know it, but we are living in the Responsibility Era. So said George Bush back in 2000 when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination. He vowed that he would be the Responsibility President and, it seems, repeat the word over and over until it lost all meaning. That one speech, forgettable but retrievable, contained the following line: ``And to lead this nation to a responsibility era, a president himself must be responsible.'' Churchill, rest easy.

In his Sunday night speech to the nation, Bush once again ran up this tattered rhetorical banner: ``I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.'' It was the exact same phrase Bush had used earlier in the week at his Woodrow Wilson Center speech. That one prompted Jay Leno to an outburst of wisdom: ``Yeah, well, I don't think he has to worry about other people trying to take credit for that one.''

Had the word ``responsible,'' in all its permutations and declensions, made an occasional appearance in the president's rhetoric, it would not be worth a comment. But it is a theme, a beat, a tick, a flat-footed verbal tautology and a way, really, of deflecting apt criticism. Listen to your president:

``I take responsibility,'' he said Sept. 13 about the botched Hurricane Katrina relief effort. ``I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course,'' he said back in 2003. ``I also take responsibility for making decisions on war and peace.''

``I take responsibility for putting our troops into action,'' he said a bit earlier in 2003. ``I take responsibility for making that decision.''

This recitation of the obvious is a bit of clumsy rhetorical strutting, but also a way of ducking the ultimate in responsibility: accountability. This is something Bush will not accept or countenance. He will not be trammeled or constrained or answer to any person. He will, as we recently learned, not give a fig for the law as passed by Congress when it comes to restrictions on domestic spying. He asserts, but does not show, that asking for a warrant from the special intelligence court would endanger the country and -- his idea of a jolly-good debating point -- shows irritation when pressed. He's the president, damnit. Look it up.

It was the same with the intelligence failure that was Bush's prime justification for the war. The president asserts repeatedly that he's responsible for that -- but so is Congress. It saw the same intelligence. But it is the president who runs the spy agencies, not Congress, and it is he who ought to be accountable for their dismal performance. Does this occur to him? Does he ask if he was being told what he wanted to hear? Does he wonder about his aides? Are they a claque of yes-men and (hello, Condi) women? It's ridiculous to say Congress is equally responsible for being duped by bad intelligence. The intelligence, after all, was the president's. He should be accountable.

This theme of responsibility without accountability applies in spades to Bush's personnel policies -- or lack of them. If the president were truly responsible, then he would fire the bunglers. By failing to do so, the president shows that he has not closely examined what went wrong. He works with the same team of happy incompetents who failed him once (bad intelligence), then again (going to war), then again (the administration of it) and then again (postwar reconstruction). A responsible leader would get some people around him with the guts to challenge him. This is a White House of the meek.

Finally, the ``responsibility president'' would understand that his crew has lost all credibility. He cannot expect a nation, and in particular its military, to accept the assurances of people who will be mocked by history or to have faith in leaders whose failures are sadly obvious in the only ledger that really matters -- the body count in Iraq. For instance, just the other day in Iraq, Vice President Cheney said the country had ``turned the corner.'' Who believes him? He may be right, but by now if Cheney told me that Christmas will fall on the Dec. 25th, I'd doubt him. The man has been wrong, wrong, wrong -- and still he is the president's primary adviser. He should be relegated to state funerals and demagogic speeches to slow learners in the Republican Party.

If Bush wants us to believe that he truly accepts responsibility for what has happened in Iraq, then he has to act responsibly himself: End the Responsibility Era. Start the Accountability one.

© 2005, Washington Post Writers Group

Richard Cohen

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