President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk in the oval office that said “The Buck Stops Here!” When it came to making to decisions as president, Truman had many consequential decisions to make, some he regretted, some he did not. But one of his great virtues was his willingness to take responsibility for the tough decisions he had to make. Perhaps none was more agonizing than the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But when asked about these decisions afterward, even when deeply criticized, Truman never sidestepped who made the decision. He assured his supporters and critics the blame laid squarely on his shoulders. The buck stopped with him.
Watching John McCain’s funeral and memorial ceremonies was a moving exercise and a reminder of the importance of the civic-minded service that McCain so well embodied. In his eulogy, President George W. Bush praised McCain for his courage and decency. Likewise, President Barack Obama praised McCain for his patriotism and toughness. The praise for McCain was bipartisan and genuine. We have few politicians left like McCain who not only talked the talk but walked the walk. He was not perfect in his office and made mistakes, which he often admitted, but he was a patriot and a man of principle, even when he failed to live by those principles.
While there are many attributes that McCain embodied that are praiseworthy and admirable, it was his willingness to take responsibility for his actions—the actions of himself and his country—that made him remarkable and, more importantly, a model for our politics. President Obama landed on this hallmark of McCain’s character. The buck stopped with McCain. He owned his mistakes and took responsibility for his actions and those of his nation.
He took responsibility for his involvement in the Savings and Loan Scandal and admitted his failures. When his marriage to his first wife failed, he took responsibility and blamed himself. When a war that was being waged poorly, which he supported, seemed to be on the brink of disaster, he offered a plan, known as “the surge,” which turned the tide and brought stability to chaos. It was a bold and risky strategy, and while most politicians who had voted for the Iraq War were looking to wash their hands and leave the Iraqis to deal with the insurgency alone, McCain argued, counterintuitively, that more, not fewer, soldiers were needed. To Bush’s credit he agreed, to the disapproval of the war-weary American public.
Hindsight is 20/20, so we do not appreciate what a gamble the surge truly was. It could have failed, and failed miserably. And McCain and the president would have borne the brunt of the failure. But responsible politicians realize that is the nature and burden of leadership.
We live in an age profligate in irresponsibility. The press, president, congresspersons, and others in high places seem to lack the ability to take responsibility for their actions and for the actions of those they lead. This accounts in part for the vacuum in leadership in high places. People are drawn, not repulsed, by leaders who are willing to own their roles and make decisions that put their name and reputation on the line.
It is astonishing to watch people in high places with immense power continually point the finger at everybody else but themselves for our current polarized and petty politics. President Obama recently excoriated our current politics as “petty” but distanced himself from that pettiness, imagining that the man who owned the bully pulpit for the eight years before 2017 had no role in our degeneration. Whatever Obama’s virtues, he was never able to bear responsibility for his administration’s blunders with the “JV squad” ISIS or the humanitarian disaster that is Syria. He drew red lines only to back away from them with little sign of remorse.
Our current president has made a virtue of never apologizing for anything, and even lies or fudges truth to avoid responsibility. Just yesterday he tried to claim thousands of Americans did not die in Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria, despite Republicans and Democrats agreeing around 3,000 did. But for Trump, apologizing and admitting fault gives your opponents political fodder and makes you look weak. Trump’s solution is to avoid responsibility and never apologize, whether at home or abroad. For a president who primarily thinks about our alliances in terms of what we get out of them, the word responsibility has little or no real purchase. Considering national interests is not a sin, but if we consider the sort of world we want to live in, we need something more than merely national interests.
Many of the fine tributes and praise lavished on McCain are not-so-veiled criticisms of Trump. The problem with these veiled criticisms is that they come from politicians, Republican and Democrat, and media outlets that have driven and benefitted from our dysfunction. Trump and the polarization that has grown during his presidency was long a feature of our national politics. But rather than the media or politicians owning the dysfunction which was brought about on their watch, they find a scapegoat. Nobody is willing to look at their tribe or blame themselves for their role in our current state of national politics.
Politicians treat us to lamentations about America’s loss of global leadership, but these same politicians have shown no inclination to advocate for the means that would let America lead. This is probably because it’s not politically expedient. McCain was unafraid, perhaps to a fault, to promote and practice American leadership.
At least one reason McCain seems to have been unafraid to take responsibility was that he lived by a code that superseded politics. He had a reference point outside himself that anchored him so that his conscience was accountable to this code. When he failed to live up to it, he was willing to admit failure. This is a strength, not a weakness, because admitting failure shows the power of ideals and the importance of always striving to live up to them. We don’t accommodate the code; we accommodate ourselves to the code.
Americans are waiting for politicians who are willing to live responsibly to say “the buck stops with me.” Taking responsibility is only for the mature, for the sacrificial, for those willing to put another cause and purpose above one’s own party and ego. Here’s to hoping that we shall have more politicians like McCain willing to take up the burden of leadership and bear the responsibility for that leadership.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in the history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.