In the America of yore, presidents took responsibility for their decisions. That’s what real leaders do.
In 1961, after John F. Kennedy green-lit the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of communist Cuba, he didn’t publicly blame Dwight Eisenhower, even though Ike’s team had mapped the operation. He didn’t publicly malign the military or the spooks who put the plan in action. Instead, he manned up and shouldered the blame himself. He told Americans, “Victory has a hundred fighters, but defeat is an orphan. I am the responsible officer of the government.”
A quarter century later, after the arms-for-hostages scandal blew up in Ronald Reagan’s face, he didn’t heap blame on the underlings who’d done the dirty work. Instead, Reagan manned up and shouldered the blame himself. He told Americans, “It was a mistake…What should happen when you make a mistake is, you take your knocks, you learn your lessons.”
In other words, as Harry Truman’s desk sign said, “The buck stops here.”
Those were the days. The current desk occupant does things…differently. On Tuesday, this was how he critiqued the botched Yemen military operation, the one he OK’d as commander-in-chief, the one that failed to kill or capture the targeted al Qaeda leaders, the one that killed Navy SEAL Ryan Owens and at least 25 civilians, the one that destroyed a $70-million aircraft and yielded intel that may not even be actionable:
“This was a mission that was started before I got here. That was something they wanted to do. They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do – the generals – who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”
Not exactly a profile in courage, is it? Not exactly Reaganesque, is it? A strong president has the confidence to admit error; it’s the weak who duck responsibility.
That’s why the Tuesday night tear-jerk – with Trump invoking Ryan Owens in heaven, while his widow cried – was so revolting. Phillip Carter, a former Army officer and ex-Pentagon official, says it better than I can: “Words cannot convey my compassion and sympathy for Owens and her family. And yet, at the same time, I can barely contain my anger and disgust at the way that Trump put her on display, seeking to appropriate her grief — and her deceased husband’s heroism — for his political gain. This was stolen valor on a presidential scale.”
Carter — who is certainly not alone in the military community — said that Trump’s bid to shift blame is “an incredible betrayal of his office and the awesome responsibility that our president must shoulder, especially in the national security sphere. A president who pass the buck is not one we can trust to lead our military and keep us safe.”
But hey, this is apparently the new credo: The Buck Stops Elsewhere.
I have no doubt that millions of viewers teared up for Carryn Owens. I bet they assumed that the spectacle they witnessed, and Trump’s spin about how the raid was an awesome success, constituted the whole story. (Trump’s popularity, such as it is, hinges heavily on the support of ill-informed people.) But what was off screen was just as important. Carry Owens’ father-in-law was AWOL at the congressional address; a military vet himself, Bill Owens is demanding an investigation of the Yemen raid. When his son’s remains came home, he refused to meet with Trump. He said, “My conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him.”
Bill also had some advice for Trump: “Don’t hide behind my son’s death.”
Oh well, too late!
I shudder to think what he’ll do the next time a life-and-death decision goes wrong. Will he take responsibility, or hide again? Ronald Reagan said, “You take your knocks, you learn your lessons.” But is this new guy remotely capable of learning anything?