Bush and Kerry: Different styles for ducking responsibility

May 11, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - When the photos from the Abu Ghraib prison burst into the news, President Bush knew exactly how to demonstrate his feelings about the disgraceful cruelty they revealed. He went to Donald H. Rumsfeld's house for dinner and, according to other guests, expressed "deep admiration" for the job the defense secretary was doing.

Ronald Reagan used to say there's no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit. Mr. Bush has a different approach - happy to take credit for anything that goes right, while believing that neither he nor his aides should accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong.

It took Mr. Bush a week to do what was in order from the beginning: apologize to the victims and the world for the sadistic treatment of Iraqi inmates by American soldiers. His first reaction was to say he felt "deep disgust," in a manner suggesting he didn't feel much of anything. Eventually he went on Arab TV to deplore the abuses, while declining to apologize. Only when his recalcitrance provoked universal criticism did he finally say he was sorry.

Where was John Kerry while all this was going on? Showing his own allergy to responsibility, which would have meant stepping forward and taking a stand even if it involved some slight risk. The day Mr. Bush went on Arab TV, Mr. Kerry made one of his patented efforts to have it both ways.

Should Mr. Bush apologize? "The president of the United States needs to offer the world an explanation and needs to take appropriate responsibility," asserted Mr. Kerry. "And if that includes apologizing for the behavior of those soldiers and what happened, they ought to do that." He's for an apology if it's appropriate but not if it isn't. Is that clear?

Mr. Kerry wanted to put the blame on Mr. Bush while avoiding any statement that could be construed as showing weakness on war and peace. The result was the high-toned mush that has become his signature.

In the old Hertz commercial, a guy rents a car from a rival company. When a companion demands to know if the competitor offers various perks, as Hertz does, he replies with a sheepish look: "Not exactly." That could be the slogan of the Kerry campaign.

Were you for the war, senator? Not exactly. Against it? Not exactly. In favor of staying the course? Not exactly. Eager to get out? Not exactly. For or against $87 billion for the occupation? Both. Do you own an SUV? Well, that's a complicated matter.

It's no surprise to see Mr. Bush keep Mr. Rumsfeld despite the prison debacle. He has limitless patience when his aides fail, or when he himself does. He kept George J. Tenet despite the CIA's cluelessness on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. He kept Condoleezza Rice even though she showed modest interest in al-Qaida in the summer of 2001. He kept John Ashcroft, who told the acting FBI director shortly before 9/11 that he didn't want to hear another word about terrorism.

The president never thought of axing Mr. Rumsfeld despite his repeated, grievous mistakes - letting Osama bin Laden get away, doing little to prepare for the Iraq occupation, humiliating a general who warned of the need for more troops, and failing to furnish body armor and armored vehicles to soldiers in desperate need of them.

Apparently Mr. Rumsfeld also ignored complaints last fall from the head of the U.S. occupation, L. Paul Bremer III, that the military was imprisoning too many Iraqis for too much time. Yet Thursday, Mr. Bush declared, "Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well."

On this question, Mr. Kerry finally announced that Mr. Rumsfeld had to go. But by then, the senator was scrambling to get in front of a parade that was marching off without him. It was more evidence that Mr. Kerry can be counted on to do the right thing, as soon as he's exhausted the alternatives.

While Mr. Bush takes muscular positions only to disdain accountability for their results, Mr. Kerry simply avoids positions to the maximum extent he can. He can't be blamed for taking the wrong stand if no one can identify what stand he took.

The president's response to the abuse of Iraqi detainees illustrates his governing credo: Don't judge us by our deeds, judge us by our intentions. Since Mr. Bush is certain his motives are always pure, he and his subordinates can never be faulted - no matter how terrible their performance.

Harry Truman said, "The buck stops here." Mr. Kerry says, "In my administration, should the occasion require, the buck will stop at the appropriate place." Mr. Bush says, "What buck?"

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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