Barack Obama has succeeded in becoming the anti-Reagan in much the way Bill Clinton became the anti-Truman.
The late President Harry S. Truman was famous for keeping a small plaque on his desk reading “The Buck Stops Here.” Rush Limbaugh cleverly encapsulated the Clinton style of administration by jesting that Bill’s motto was “The Buck Never Got Here.”
The “buck” refers to a practice used in card games in the Wild West in the 1800s. Scoundrels were prevalent, adept at prestidigitation, so players were reluctant to let any one of their number deal all the cards. The buck was a designated object placed in front of a player, then moved to the next player in a few minutes or a few hands. The player with the buck was responsible for dealing over that little while. If one cared to forfeit his turn, he could pass the buck forward. Thus, passing the buck came to signify sloughing off responsibility, while letting the buck stop here means accepting the burden of management.
Truman generally lived up to his credo, taking on both the yoke and the heat. Clinton, by contrast, was adept at alibiing himself by claiming that various thorny calls were actually the province of underlings.
Ronald Reagan, self-consciously playing off Truman, put a conspicuous plaque on his desk as well. It said: “There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Judging by Barack Obama’s press conference remarks about the Louisiana oil spill, he has fashioned the obverse slogan: “There is no limit to the credit you can get if you don’t care who did the accomplishing.”
More than a month into the Gulf gush, folks were getting antsy over the seeming insouciance of Obama. They were not looking for him to gush oily salesmanship, but to speak sincerely from the heart and to demonstrate a command of the situation. There was a sense that BP has been earnestly floundering while the administration could offer nothing more substantive than the blame-corporations-first boilerplate so beloved of Democrat boiler rooms and thousand-a-plate dinners.
The White House responded to the Conventional Wisdom by putting the President out front to conduct his first press conference in nearly a year. Although I could not attend in person, I forced myself to endure it electronically. The gist of his message was simple enough. If the BP strategy of putting mud down the well succeeds in stopping the spill, the administration gets the credit. Why? Because BP was operating at the direction of a cast of government geniuses led by Secretary Chu who won the Nobel Prize in physics (and we all know Nobel Prizes are only awarded the deserving). But if the mud-plug backfires, it is the fault of BP, an irresponsible bunch of profiteers who corrupted inspectors with excessive chumminess.
Heads I win, tails you lose, as Jackie Gleason told Art Carney in a classic episode of The Honeymooners. No less than BP itself, Obama manages to poison the well and muddy the water at the same time.
The deeper meaning of Ronald Reagan’s emblem was that forfeiting credit is more than a strategy, it is a virtue. The grab for credit turns the act into an operation of, by and for the self, smothering the altruism needed for devotion to the needs of the other. Once the doer commits to serve the nation, he only projects his personality to the extent it does not cast a shadow on the broader landscape of the communal project. Try to get a World War II medal wearer to tell you what he did to earn the accolade and most of his energy will be invested in shrinking his contribution.
Indeed I recall a Reagan address in which he said (preparatory to violating this injunction a tad): “My mother told me it is not nice to crow.” Perhaps only those with the grace to refrain from blaming others can restrain their own boasting. If every second sentence is “Bush stinks” then inevitably the first sentence must be “I am great.” This certitude is a distortion of rectitude, in life no less than in Scrabble.
My friends argue we should judge Presidents by policies, not by character, but I think otherwise. On Memorial Day I need a President I would die for, and there decency counts far more than accuracy.