“Character in many ways is everything in leadership. It is made up of many things, but I would say character is really integrity. When you delegate something to a subordinate, for example, it is absolutely your responsibility, and he must understand this. You as a leader must take complete responsibility for what the subordinate does. I once said, as a sort of wisecrack, that leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.”—Dwight D. Eisenhower quoted in Edgar F. Puryear Jr., Nineteen Stars: A Study in Military Character and Leadership (1971)
It would have been easy for Dwight Eisenhower to accept all the credit and shrug off the blame for operations he directed. For several years in the 1930s, he noted acidly later, he had “studied theatrics” for seven years under his boss, vainglorious Douglas MacArthur. Maybe the daily annoyance of watching MacArthur at close quarters as his aide inoculated him against similar conduct, or maybe it was the sober recognition that, if he were to send men into life-or-death situations, he needed to bind them to him through emotional loyalty, not just the obedience expected by his superior rank.
In the anxious hours before the D-Day invasion, Eisenhower was every bit as good as his word. Had the mass assault at Normandy failed, he was ready with a statement about how the public should judge the event. “The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do,” it concluded. “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
While critical as a candidate of many Eisenhower policies as President, John F. Kennedy must have come to understand that one source of his predecessor’s considerable appeal was this willingness to step up. The new young President had inherited planning done by the CIA for an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. But when the Bay of Pigs turned into a fiasco only three months into the administration, JFK realized that he could not blame someone else. “Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan,” he said mordantly if ironically, concluding, “I am the responsible officer of the government.”
Kennedy could not get over the fact that his approval rating actually rose after his first major failure. To be sure, diplomatic and military debacles have not been similarly rewarded since then. (After the botched hostage rescue mission in Iran in 1980, American voters did not recall that Jimmy Carter had taken to the air afterward to accept full responsibility, but that military officers had died in the desert because of an operation he ordered.)
But by and large, Americans—many with abundant experience as parents—would rather see a leader who, like a responsible child, steps up and admits that he was responsible for wrecking the family car, not a kid sibling.
Except for the Republican newcomer to the Oval Office, who seems never to have absorbed Eisenhower’s pungent lesson on credit and blame as a part of leadership. I refuse to accord that newcomer the dignity of naming him, as he has so very rarely displayed any dignity in the job he should never have attained in the first place. But a few words are in order on both his dereliction of duty as commander in chief and dereliction of character.
Two and a half weeks ago, at a press conference, the new President launched into his usual bragging mode about his famous victory this past November. He could not resist taking it even further, extending his ridiculous trope that he’d won in a “landslide.”
“I guess it was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan,” he concluded.
The normal untruth of the new President (let’s call him Agent Orange, in honor of his unusual hair color and of his possible status as a government employee in the service of a foreign power, ok?) is something so outrageous that it can’t be readily disproven. But this time, he went too far. He offered the kind of fact that can be verified or struck down by using virtually any almanac at hand. (Unless, like our new President, you show no signs of ever even opening any almanac to begin with.)
It fell to NBC news correspondent Peter Alexander to tell Agent Orange that Barack Obama, for one, had a higher Electoral College count. Well, okay—Republicans—the new incumbent said, almost comically unsure that most onlookers (never, of course, those “enemies of the people”) would give him a pass. But even this didn’t work. After all, George H.W. Bush (yes, the father of “low-energy” Jeb) even had a higher Electoral College tally as a first-time nominee. And among Democrats, not only Barack Obama but Bill Clinton had higher electoral counts.
“Well, no I was told — I was given that information,” Agent Orange claimed.
Look at the construction of that last clause. It’s passive. More to the point, there’s no actor or cause of action involved. We don’t know who fed him that tidbit—indeed, if anyone did give him any. There’s every reason to think that nobody did.
But that wasn’t the last—or more serious—time that Agent Orange tried to shift blame. After questions began to be raised about the loss of life during a covert mission he authorized in Yemen against ISIS—one approved so soon after his inauguration that there was every reason to wonder how fully he absorbed his briefing on it—he said, in a Fox News interview, that the mission was started “before I got here.” It was, he said, something his generals “wanted to do”—and, he couldn’t resist adding, “they lost [US Navy SEAL William] Ryan [Owens].”
This was right after he had claimed the mission was “a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.” In other words, he was happy to claim credit for the part of the raid that (he said, offering no proof) “worked,” but ran as far away as he could from the part that didn’t.
There’s a word that Agent Orange uses every chance he gets in his overnight tweets, and it applies here to his attempt to grab the glory associated with leadership but run away from the blame that accrues to it: pathetic.