Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Taking responsibility

I watched Gonzales's Senate testimony on C-SPAN on Wednesday, and like most (even Republicans), was distinctly underwhelmed. As seems common when Gonzales has to defend his own actions, or the actions of the DoJ, or the administration, he relied heavily on catchphrases and slogans. One that I found particularly irksome this time was his repeated insistence that he "takes full responsibility" for the U.S. Attorney firings.

Soundbites like this can be annoying. They often oversimplify complex policies or act as code words to insult our political opponents. But, they still generally maintain a modicum of meaning. Gonzales tried to go even further in this case. He seems aware that as the head of the Dept. of Justice he is responsible for major decisions such as firing these attorneys and so repeated it several times. However, he seems to think this is merely a verbal formula, something to say, like "I'm sorry," rather than an actual acknowledgement and acceptance of consequences.

The point is that claiming responsibility for an action means that you are admitting your culpability, i.e. that you are willing to accept the consequences for that action. But that is exactly what Gonzales was trying to avoid in his testimony. He admits this entire brouhaha was poorly handled, but is not willing to do take what would seem to be the appropriate response in stepping down from his position.

After all, what would "taking responsibility" mean for Gonzales? That he apologizes? That he offers these positions back to the fired attorneys? That he change how he runs the DoJ? Well, in a normal situation we would say that taking responsibility would mean doing what you can to fix the problem you created. In this case, the problem created by Gonzales was a loss of confidence by the public and the Congress in the competence and impartiality of those running the DoJ. He can solve that problems--by either resigning or explaining in a manner transparent to all how there was nothing improper in his firings. Since he has been unable to do the second, for him to do as he claims he is in "taking responsibility," he must resign. Otherwise, his claim that he is "taking responsibility remains almost entirely content-free.

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