WASHINGTON—Simple and direct like the man who put it there, it was a bold statement that summed up his approach to leadership and represented a value of the generation that helped him build a new America after World War II.
"The Buck Stops Here," said the no-nonsense sign on President Harry Truman's desk. Today, it sits in a Missouri museum. And with it perhaps the sentiment it represented.
It was more than a slogan. The notion of accepting responsibility without passing the buck or blaming others when things went wrong was central to the work ethic and moral tone of the time.
By contrast today, almost none of the leaders of the country's great institutions ever step forward and take responsibility for failure or even honest mistakes. It is sometimes imposed by others, notably juries, but less so by the broader American society and virtually never invoked voluntarily in politics, business, religion or popular culture.
In government, for example, no one was held responsible for major failures in intelligence in either the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or what former CIA Director George Tenet called the "slam dunk" conclusion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Instead, President Bush awarded Tenet the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
In business, Worldcom CEO Bernard Ebber's defense against criminal charges was that the boss isn't really responsible for his company. A jury didn't agree and convicted him.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the man who presided over the country's worst sexual-abuse scandal, Boston Archbishop Bernard Law, eventually resigned his American office. But he retains his higher status as a cardinal, is well regarded in the Vatican where he now works and will soon be one of the elites who choose a new pope.
In popular entertainment, bad behavior once routinely punished on screen now can be excused or celebrated. In the 1960 movie "Oceans 11," for example, rogues led by Frank Sinatra don't get to keep their stolen money. In the 2001 remake, thieves led by George Clooney get away with the cash.
Historians, philosophers, political scientists and sociologists cite many reasons for the decline of an ethic of responsibility in America over recent decades, including:
_ A culture of narcissism or self-absorption;
_ The rise of celebrity worship and entitlement;
_ The distractions of the war on terrorism.
Whatever the reasons, most experts agree that how people feel about their obligations has changed, particularly for those in positions of power and influence.
"Responsibility is waning. The strong sense of holding people responsible is getting more and more difficult," said Joan McGregor, a philosopher at Arizona State University. "We still hold people responsible all the time in a legal sense. But in a moral sense, it's as though no one is responsible any more."
It wasn't always so, particularly in the brief period during and after World War II when the country was dominated by what Tom Brokaw would later call the Greatest Generation.
When enormously popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur disobeyed presidential orders, Truman fired him, risking his own political standing.
President John F. Kennedy took "sole responsibility" a few months into office when the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs turned into a debacle. He fired the CIA director and deputy who initiated the plan.
But American society changed in the second half of the 20th century, much for the better, some for the worse.
Post-World War II affluence produced a mobile society, one that tore up the roots of closely bound ethnic communities in central cities. Many moved to suburbs where neighbors didn't automatically know neighbors and didn't necessarily share the same culture. People didn't feel as responsible to strangers as they did to those who'd known them—and might judge them.
The divorce rate shot up. The number of people living alone escalated. As Robert Putnam noted in his landmark 1995 book, "Bowling Alone," the number of people who bowled rose, but the number who did so in organized leagues dropped. The fabric of American culture highlighted by membership in organizations, noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, came apart.
"People begin to live in a way where they don't share a lot of symbolic meaning with the people near them," said the Rev. John Staudenmaier, S.J., a historian at the University of Detroit Mercy. "They don't want to share. They don't come from a world where the commitments you make bind you."
Popular culture echoed the changes with the rise of the anti-hero. The voluntary Hays Code, which prohibited movies from glamorizing crime, was dropped. So was the Television Code, with its prohibition against showing criminal behavior being rewarded. Even the Comics Code Authority, with its requirement that good must always win, faded.
Americans adopted a new post-1960s attitude that society—not the individual—was to blame for errant behavior. They created no-fault divorce and no-fault auto insurance. Increasingly, they also turned to lawsuits to blame others for their own choices.
Former President Bill Clinton personified the trend.
When first accused of having an affair with a former White House intern, he angrily denied it and then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton blamed a "vast right-wing conspiracy." After he was caught lying under oath to conceal the affair, he lashed out at the politics of personal destruction. In his presidential library, he avoids personal responsibility and devotes most of an exhibit on his impeachment to blaming Republicans for trying to unseat him.
By the time he launched his presidential campaign in June 1999, George W. Bush, too, saw a problem.
"My first goal is to usher in the responsibility era, an era that stands in stark contrast to the last few decades, where our culture has said: If it feels good, do it, and if you've got a problem, blame someone else," Bush said. "Each American must understand that we are responsible for the decision each of us makes in life."
But he hasn't taken responsibility for failures in his government, nor has he assigned it to those who work for him.
To be sure, finding people responsible for failure during wartime is sometimes controversial.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was constantly second-guessed by congressional committees. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee said one of those committees was worth two divisions to his side.
After Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, the government investigated and punished several senior military officials. Similarly, at the height of World War II, then-Sen. Truman led an investigation into war profiteering by American businesses, exposing shoddy work and saving billions of dollars and thousands of lives.
After the United States was attacked in 2001, Bush resisted attempts to find flaws in the nation's intelligence or security apparatus. Once he relented, investigations found fault, but Bush didn't assign responsibility or take it.
Investigations also faulted intelligence services for wrongly stating that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded. Again, Bush didn't assign responsibility or take it.
In fact, policymakers who expressed skepticism about parts of the administration's case for war weren't asked to return for Bush's second term, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage.
Those who publicly or privately trumpeted the false intelligence were either retained or promoted, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice; her former deputy, Stephen J. Hadley; and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
After it was revealed that prisoners were abused in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Bush condemned the practice. Rumsfeld offered to resign, but Bush rejected the offer.
At a recent congressional hearing, a senior military investigator said top U.S. officials had failed to set clear rules for interrogating prisoners, but he added that it wasn't his role to assign responsibility.
In business, high-flying, highly paid executives presided over a corporate culture that some critics likened to the Gilded Age of the late 1800s.
"The CEO became a cult hero," said Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at Columbia University. "The CEO class came to believe what the cover stories said about them, that they were sublime geniuses who made vast amounts of difference in the success of their companies."
When Worldcom's Ebbers claimed he wasn't responsible for financial crimes committed at his company—a defense other indicted executives planned to use—it signaled what Gitlin called a moral collapse.
"If you think that being the CEO and being rewarded gets you off a hook rather than on it, then your moral principle is that ignorance is bliss," Gitlin said.
One thing that's allowed the powerful to abandon responsibility is lack of societal pressure. In 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole discovered that voters were uninterested in fund-raising abuses at the Clinton White House. "Where's the outrage?" Dole repeatedly complained.
Gitlin attributes it to the cult of personality. "There's been a metastasis of celebrity," he said. "Celebrity is taken to be a moral position. To be a celebrity is to transcend mere categories of good and evil."
Staudenmaier, the historian, said people are distracted. He suggested that's what happened in the Roman Catholic Church.
"When you're paying more attention to the definition of doctrinal correctness, which has been the case for 20 years, you find people looking past the question of whether people are doing a good job with the power," he said.
At the same time, he said, Americans became more exclusively focused on profits in business and on the war on terror in government.
Said Staudenmaier: "You take your eye off the ball and you get bad behavior."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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