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Sunday, Apr 20, 2014
Tom Jackson

Jackson: When “taking responsibility” loses all meaning

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We are pondering today the dramatically malleable properties of what it means to “take responsibility.”

The fact that the phrase has labored under excessive use these last several years may account for it having been kneaded out of its traditional shape, the one in which “taking responsibility” served as the entrance point to a conduit leading inexorably to “swift and certain consequences” at the other end.

Anymore, it seems — at least at the highest level of government — volunteering to “take responsibility” is not a means to an end, but an end in itself, as though a public expression of accountability, attended by remorse and vows to do better next time, are humiliation enough.

We saw it again — the scene has become sufficiently familiar to be mind-numbing, like anything beyond the 200th episode of “Happy Days” — Wednesday morning when Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, tugged on the “Blame Me” T-shirt at a House of Representatives hearing on the bumbling rollout of “Obamacare,” which also flies the increasingly ironic “Affordable Care Act” banner.

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Sebelius’ mea culpa was fascinatingly insufficient for the bulk of her Republican inquisitors, whose persistent attempts to hear her shove the buck at the President — he’s the boss; you report to him, right? — elicited, at last, the comically dismissive, yet starkly revealing, “Whatever.”

“The American people are watching,” says U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the Palm Harbor Republican whose district includes all of Pasco County. “They’re seeing the incompetence on the administration’s part. That’s putting a lot of pressure on the other side.”

Still, these days it’s a long way from “hold me accountable” and “people are watching” to that portion of the program we used to call “and heads will roll.” Not, apparently, in Barack Obama’s Washington, anyway, where confession appears not only to be good for the soul, but the galvanizer of job security, as well.

The only people this president fires are generals and mid-level staffers who poke fun at colleagues on Twitter. Meanwhile, if you oversee a division that illegally targets inconvenient political rivals, you get to tell Congress to go stuff itself and take early retirement.

Still, Bilirakis says we’re watching, and we should, but do we see what we’re looking at?

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Sebelius claims responsibility for having blown $118 million on the malfunctioning Obamacare website and another $56 million on IT support, and, if taken at her word, decent respect for the American taxpayer would require termination for that sort of malfeasance. Alas, only partisans are squawking, so Sebelius hasn’t so much as been furloughed.

Ah, well, at least she didn’t get anyone killed (that we know of). Heck, Hillary Clinton “took responsibility” for the massacre at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and if the election were held tomorrow, polls say we’d promote the former secretary of state to the White House, bloodied hands and all.

Which is another way of crystallizing the conditions as they’ve come to exist. We’re watching, but in our current hyper-politicized atmosphere, who did best in the last election is all that matters. That scale favors the president.

Still, it’s difficult not to compare the pass Obama grants his chief lieutenants who double as his PR bodyguards to what became of a certain high school principal and small-town mayor when he took responsibility — no quotation marks apply — for failure to maintain professional conduct with school district underlings.

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Nobody was killed and not a dime of taxpayer money was squandered in the bad behavior of Steve Van Gorden. This is not to suggest the span of allegations and what he grudgingly copped to were anything less than grievous, but he genuinely owned his misdeeds, and the price was steep: two careers with bright futures, gone.

So forgive us when we laugh out loud about the idea of Kathleen Sebelius “taking responsibility.”

We are watching, all right, and we know stepping up is a cinch when you know what’s on the other side is nothing of consequence. Absolutely nothing at all.

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