In the old West, when the boys played poker at the saloon, or wherever, along with the cards, chips, money, and various beverages, the table was also adorned with a knife–one with a buckhorn handle. The knife was moved from place to place, depending on the person dealing. If a player didn’t feel like dealing the cards, he could pass the responsibility to the next guy, along with the knife.
It was called “passing the buck.”
The phrase is, of course, most commonly associated with President Harry Truman–in fact, his desk on display at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, has a famous sign bearing the words: “The Buck Stops Here.” One of his aides, Fred Canfil, had seen the phrase on a desk in El Reno, Oklahoma, and had the sign made for his boss. Interestingly, and largely lost to the legend according to biographer David McCullough, the 33rd President only kept the sign on his Oval Office desk for a short time while in the White House.
But the metaphor stuck.
It has been used by leaders–particularly presidents–ever since as the ultimate way of saying: “I’m in charge, it’s my responsibility.” Most recently, the phrase was brought out of White House mothballs and used by President Barack Obama in remarks about the Christmas Day 2009 foiled Islamist terrorist attack.
It remains to be seen whether or not the latest pronouncement about the proverbial buck will be remembered as Truman-esque, or more like the nervous stammer of Alexander Haig the day President Reagan was shot. I believe the President said the right things the other day–but will he and his administration really follow through, taking steps, making the tough calls, and keeping the issue of Islamist terror on their political radar screen?
A good indicator would be the willingness to call it what it is. We are not just fighting Al Qaeda as some kind of generic syndicate of bad guys, as with The Man From Uncle and “THRUSH” or Maxwell Smart’s “KAOS.” There is no way for us to win over an ideology, while being afraid or hesitant to call it what it is: Islamism.
To my mind, Mr. Obama is still not comfortable in his role as Commander-in-Chief, with its implied responsibilities of protecting the nation from “all enemies, foreign and domestic.” He is now saying many of the right things, but I wonder if his vocabulary and America’s dictionary are in sync? He forms phrases now like “we are at war” – but I can’t help but get the feeling that this is based more on manufactured energy than real passion. Does the President view what happened on Christmas and the whole megilla of security, intelligence, and such as important as, say, the economy, healthcare, and jobs?
In fairness, most presidents bring dreams to the job. Lyndon Johnson wanted to build a Great Society and Richard Nixon wanted to focus on foreign affairs, but both had to contend more than they would have liked with their less-favored part of the domestic-international presidential paradigm. Bill Clinton wanted it all to be about “the economy, stupid.” But the first priority of any president is to keep us safe so we can actually have an economy.
A strong sense of national security is, in itself, a potent economic stimulus.
Only time will tell if the new-found-but-pretty-darn-late war-speak (better: war-whisper) will really be about the buck stopping with the President, or mere words.
After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President Kennedy faced the press and talked about victory having many “fathers,” but defeat being an “orphan.” He also acknowledged that he was “the responsible officer” in the government. It was, as was Mr. Obama’s recent admission, a statement of the obvious.
But accepting responsibility as a leader does not abrogate systemic culpability.
The old 1970s sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, had a character named Lou Grant (played by Ed Asner)–an irascible man who ran a newsroom. Mary’s boss once said: “Leadership is the art of delegating blame.” Actually, good leadership is somewhere between taking full blame and delegating it all away. Where there are mistakes there is blame to be found. To miss this is to ignore a vital piece of the puzzle preventing something else bad from happening.
Frankly, what needs to happen throughout the government is for various leaders in key areas to think about letting the buck stay with them for a while. When a president has to say “The Buck Stops Here,” it is at least a tacit acknowledgement that the buck has been aggressively mobile.
I think the buck stops every bit as much with Attorney General Eric Holder, as it does with the President. After all, haven’t we been given the impression that the whole send-the-Gitmo-gangsters-to-New York idea is really his and the President is above it all? Or does that buck make its way to Mr. Obama’s desk, too?
And how about Dennis Blair, our Director of National Security (DNI–one of the dumbest ideas to come out of the Bush administration)? Following Mr. Obama’s speech on Thursday, he issued a statement saying, in part:
The Intelligence Community has made considerable progress in developing collection and analysis capabilities and improving collaboration, but we need to strengthen our ability to stop new tactics such as the efforts of individual suicide terrorists. The threat has evolved, and we need to anticipate new kinds of attacks and improve our ability to stay ahead of them and protect America.
We can and we must outthink, outwork and defeat the enemy’s new ideas. The Intelligence Community will do that as directed by the President, working closely with our nation’s entire national security team.
Really? What has the guy been working on up to now–health care reform?
One of two things has been happening, as clearly indicated by the foiled Christmas Day Islamist terror attack: either subordinates are keeping bad or inconvenient details from the President of the United States, or the information has not, until now, been marked or received with requisite urgency. Whatever the case, heads should roll. Blair’s words are akin to those uttered by an erudition-challenged player after a football game, “Well, we needed to score more points to win.” Duh.
There really is no buck to pass in the Obama administration when it comes to National Security, there is only a hot potato few want to deal with or even acknowledge. Attorney General Holder, Janet Napolitano, and so many others in key roles these days have regularly dismissed or minimized the danger of our times, while forging ahead with the even-more-now absurd sending of Gitmo detainees back to Yemen (6 on December 20th), and making sure that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (pronounced: Abdulmutallab) is told he has the right to remain silent and to the full protection of the American justice system, as opposed to being treated as he should be: as an enemy combatant.
Sure, the President of the United States made a speech and said many of the right things, but what we need to figure out is if what we are really bearing witness to is a dynamic described to reporters by Former Attorney John Mitchell, back in 1969: “Watch what we do, not what we say.”
Saturday marks the 97th birthday of President Nixon, and the day before that is the momentous 75th anniversary of the day that Elvis Aron Presley (and, briefly, his twin brother Jesse Garon) entered this world. At the end of the year, four days before Christmas, will come the 40th anniversary of the celebrated meeting of the two in the Oval Office.
Tomorrow (Wednesday) at 7 pm, at the William G. McGowan Theater of the National Archives at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, Nixon Presidential Library director Timothy Naftali will host “We Were There When Nixon Met Elvis.” Egil “Bud” Krogh, who arranged the President’s meeting with the King in his capacity as White House liason with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (Elvis sought the meeting for the purpose of discussing what role he could play in the war on drugs) and Jerry Schilling, who was a member of Elvis’s inner circle (aka the Memphis Mafia) from the mid-1950s until Presley’s death, will talk about their eyewitness memories of that event, which produced a photograph reported to be, even now, the most frequently requested image in the history of the Archives.
Almost simultaneously, at 6:30 pm at the Busboys & Poets cafe at 2021 14th Street NW in Washington, Len Colodny (co-author of the bestselling Watergate expose Silent Coup) and Tom Shachtman will discuss their new history of American foreign policy in the Nixon, Reagan, and (both) Bush eras, The Forty Years War. But interested readers do not necessarily have to flip a coin; the next day, also at 6:30, Colodny and Shachtman will talk about their book in an event sponsored by the World Affairs Council at UCDC Washington Center at 1608 Rhode Island Avenue NW; this event is also being taped by C-SPAN for broadcast on Book TV. All three events are free and open to the public, although the World Affairs Council site advises obtaining reservations beforehand at this link.
In the Daily Mirror section, the LA Times’ resident archivist Larry Harnisch takes a look at Vice President Nixon’s record setting flight aboard an American Airlines 707 from Los Angeles to Baltimore fifty years ago today. It took no longer than 3 hours and 39 minutes.
With the coming of a New Year we are again reminded that on January 1, 1959, now 51 years ago, Fidel Castro and his band of rebels rolled into Havana and established a Communist government in the Western Hemisphere. Castro is now enjoying his senior status as a thorn in the side of his eleventh American Administration. Originally regaled as the “Robin Hood of the Caribbean” and the “George Washington of Cuba”, the gradual realization that Castro was a Communist became an embarrassment to President Eisenhower and may have hurt Vice-President Nixon in the 1960 election. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, intended to oust Castro, weakened the credibility of the new Kennedy Administration. Claims of Castro’s involvement in the Kennedy assassination have never been completely silenced. Castro backed insurgencies throughout Latin America presented shifting challenges to the Johnson and Nixon Administrations. Intervention in Angola would attract the attention of President Ford and contribute to the impression of a bungling President Carter leading the U.S. into a period of decline. Castro’s support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua would lead President Reagan into aiding the Contras, which spawned the greatest scandal of his administration. With the fall of his Soviet sponsors, Castro faded into the role of a minor irritant whose major influence on the U.S. was to drive the Cuban community in Florida, with its growing influence, into the arms of politicians seen as “tough on Castro.” With the rise of his soul-mate, Hugo Chavez, Castro became a cult hero whose comments were given enhanced attention. Despite decades of attempts by Exiles and the CIA to achieve regime change or assassination, Castro, protected by his status as a Head of State and Soviet missiles, has lived to peacefully transfer power to his brother and slide into the role of an elder revolutionary. Absent unforeseen turmoil, Fidel will probably pass on quietly of natural causes.
While Fidel’s influence and irritation coefficients have been declining, those of Osama Bin Laden have been rising. Slated for capture or death by President Clinton and the target of cruise missiles in 1998 because of his role in attacks on U.S. Embassies in eastern Africa, Bin Laden became Public Enemy # 1 after the September 11 attacks. Despite President Bush’s proclamation that he was “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and over eight years of manhunts, Bin Laden remains at liberty to fire periodic audio or video messages of threats or suggestions to the Western public and their leaders. Speaking of the Tora Bora Battle of December 2001, John Kerry said: “When Bush had an opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden, he took his focus off of him, outsourced the job to Afghan warlords and bin Laden escaped.” He would later claim that Bin Laden’s last minute tape cost him the 2004 election and, as recently as last month, wrote: “If we had captured or killed Bin Laden, the world would look very different today. His death or imprisonment would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat, but our failure to finish the job represents a lost opportunity that altered the course of the conflict in Afghanistan and the future of international terrorism. It left the American people more vulnerable, and it inflamed the strife that now threatens to engulf Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Now President Obama is entangled in the War in Afghanistan which was begun to deprive Bin Laden and Al Qaeda of sanctuaries from which to launch further attacks against the West. Through all this, Bin Laden, protected by his band of tribal militants, roams the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. For how long will this outlaw avoid justice? For how long will Western politics be influenced by his tapes and even his continued life? For how many presidents will the capture or death of Bin Laden be an elusive goal? Will he, in the end, be the next Castro, who will continue to avoid the long arm of the U.S. until, full of days, riches and, in the eyes of some, honors, he will die, perhaps at a time and place unknown to his pursuers? The story develops.
I have become…convinced that the 1970′s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It is literally now or never.
—President Nixon’s Signing Statement for the National Environmental Policy Act, 1 January 1970
One of the most important, forward-thinking, and lasting achievements of the Nixon administration has been its environmental legacy. RN, typically, took a serious, practical, and comprehensive approach to this emerging issue.
That is why he chose to sign the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 on 1 January 1970, at the beginning of a new decade and the start of the second year of his presidency. The bill was largely the work of Democratic Senator Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson of Washington State; RN embraced it and, before very long, greatly expanded on it.
In fact, he felt so strongly about the environment as a landmark issue that he had wanted to sign the bill at midnight on 31 December — but Bob Haldeman pointed out that an early morning ceremony would make more sense in terms of the reporters’ and staff’s plans for New Year’s Eve.
So the signing was at 10 am on New Year’s Day in the President’s office at the Western White House in San Clemente.
And RN emphasized its importance to him by prefacing the signing with some remarks. He was at ease —he even joked a bit with the reporters— but there was no mistaking how seriously he took the legislation and the occasion:
As you know, the bill we are signing today is the environmental bill. There is one line in there that I am particularly stimulated by, when I said we had to work on the environment because it is now or never.
If you look ahead 10 years, you project population growth, car growth, and that means, of course, smog growth, water pollution, and the rest.
An area like this will be unfit for living; New York will be, Philadelphia, and, of course, 75 percent of the people will be living in areas like this.
So unless we start moving on it now-there is a lead time–unless we move on it now, believe me, we will not have an opportunity to do it later, because then when people have millions more automobiles, and, of course, the waters and so forth developing in the way that they do without plants for purification, once the damage is done, it is much harder to turn it around. It is going to be hard as it is.
That is why I indicate here that a major goal, when you talk about New Year’s resolutions, I wouldn’t say for the next year but for the next 10 years–and I don’t mean that I intend to run for a third term–for the next 10 years for this country must be to restore the cleanliness of the air, the water, and that, of course, means moving also on the broader problems of population congestion, transport, and the like.
A Signing Statement was also issued on 1 January, and it was equally eloquent and no less urgent. RN graciously credited the sponsors of the bill, but he also served notice that now his administration intended to do something about the issue — not just to talk about doing something.
It is particularly fitting that my first official act in this new decade is to approve the National Environmental Policy Act.
The past year has seen the creation of a President’s Cabinet committee on environmental quality, and we have devoted many hours to the pressing problems of pollution control, airport location, wilderness preservation, highway construction, and population trends.
By my participation in these efforts I have become further convinced that the 1970′s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It is literally now or never.
I, therefore, commend the Congress and particularly the sponsors of this bill, Senators Stevens and Jackson and Representative Dingell, for this clear legislative policy declaration. Under the provisions of this law a three-member council of environmental advisers will be appointed. I anticipate that they will occupy the same close advisory relation to the President that the Council of Economic Advisers does in fiscal and monetary matters. The environmental advisers will be assisted by a compact staff in keeping me thoroughly posted on current problems and advising me on how the Federal Government can act to solve them.
In the near future I will forward to the Senate names of highly qualified individuals to help both the Cabinet and me in the critical decisions that will affect the quality of life in the United States for years to come. I will then take the necessary executive action to reconstitute the Cabinet committee and its staff to avoid duplication of function.
On the latter point, I know that the Congress has before it a proposal to establish yet another staff organization to deal with environmental problems in the Executive Office of the President. I believe this would be a mistake.
No matter how pressing the problem, to over-organize, to over-staff, or to compound the levels of review and advice seldom brings earlier or better results.
We are most interested in results. The act I have signed gives us an adequate organization and a good statement of direction. We are determined that the decade of the seventies will be known as the time when this country regained a productive harmony between man and nature.
Later in January, RN devoted a considerable portion of his State of the Union Message to his proposed environmental legislation.
In February, he submitted to Congress the most comprehensive message on the environment ever proposed by a President of the United States.
In March he upgraded the Environmental Quality Council to the status of a Cabinet Committee on the Environment.
In July he created the EPA.
And —as a fitting bookend to 1970— on 31 December, he signed the Clean Air Act, which has been called one of the most signifiant pieces of environmental legislation ever passed.
All these —and the other environmental landmarks throughout 1970 will be considered chronologically here at TNN throughout 2010.
One of the speakers at the first Nixon Legacy Forum — to be held in the East Room of the Library in Yorba Linda next Friday (8 January, from 1.30-3.30 PM)— will be the Hon. John C Whitaker. John, who was one of RN’s closest friends and advisers from the early 1960s, was a scientist and engineer by training. He concentrated on environmental issues and policies as Associate Director of the Domestic Council (1969-1972) and as Undersecretary of the Interior (1973-1975). He is the author of Striking a Balance: Environment and Natural Resource Policy in the Nixon-Ford Administrations. At the Legacy Forum he will discuss RN’s environmental record.
The Nixon Legacy Forums are jointly sponsored by the Richard Nixon Foundation and the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, and are free and open to the public.