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Presidents and Citizens and Responsibility

"I take complete responsibility," the president said solemnly, while doing no such thing.

It's far too easy, this "taking responsibility." Having done something stupid or despicable, public figures duck and deny and delay. Finally, when the truth comes out and they have no other choice, they put on contrite faces and "take responsibility."

What does that mean? What would it have meant if President Clinton had, as he was urged to do, "taken responsibility" for slavery while he was in Africa. What does it mean when a crazed Northern Ireland splinter group eagerly "takes responsibility" for blowing innocent civilians to smithereens? What does the president mean when he says he takes responsibility for lying repeatedly about a mindless sexual dalliance?

As near as I can figure, it means "yes, I did it." It does not seem to mean "I'm sorry I did it," though it may mean "I'm sorry you found out." It contains no hint of "I've learned my lesson and I'll never do it again" or "I have done harm, which I will amend by taking the following steps by the following deadlines." In short, it bears no relation to responsibility.

"Responsible," says my ancient unabridged dictionary. "Expected or obliged to account; answerable; accountable; able to distinguish between right and wrong; trustworthy; dependable; reliable; able to pay debts or meet obligations."

Garrett Hardin, a great systems thinker, defines responsibility as taking onto oneself the full impact of one's own actions. He pointed out that the world's workable systems have "intrinsic responsibility" built into them. The pilot sits in the front of the plane, experiencing the consequences of his or her decisions right along with the passengers. In a small business the same people put up the investment, make the decisions, and reap the profits or losses. In a town meeting citizens vote directly on the budget that determines how they will be taxed.

It's distressingly difficult to think of examples of intrinsic responsibility and all too easy to think of the opposite. It's so tempting, so convenient, to spin off the consequences of one's actions onto others. Build on a floodplain, then ask for public assistance when the flood comes. Run up enormous business debts, fire long-time workers, pull jobs out of communities that were built around those jobs, dump toxins into the environment, then walk away with a golden parachute. Stir up a war and send others off to fight it. Pass laws from which you specifically exempt yourself and your friends.

Or make repentant noises about one's third embarrassing affair while in public office, doing nothing about the shattered public trust and private lives you have left in your wake.

The president, who is a good talker, did talk of responsibility. "I must put it right and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so," he said, offering no specifics. The following morning I asked around the office what people thought "putting it right" would look like. Here's what I heard. Public admission of a deep emotional failing, an addictive need to boost a fragile ego with the sexual favors of female underlings. Self-insightful discussion of the uses and abuses of power. An acknowledgment that women, no matter how attractive, silly or willing, are not toys. Repayment of the legal costs and personal damages of the many friends and staff drawn into the web of denial. Entering treatment to recover from sexual compulsion and power addiction. Resignation from office, whether legally mandated or not, on the grounds of having lied to the people.

That last step -- unthinkable for a fragile ego that needs to be propped up with power -- would also be politically brilliant, several folks in my office pointed out. It would take the wind out of the malignant sails of Kenneth Starr. It would put Al Gore into incumbent status, the last thing the Republicans want. The nation would admire Clinton for his courage, instead of pitying or condemning him for his weakness.

We got carried away, that morning-after in the office. We went on to imagine a wave of actual responsibility washing over all the actors in this sordid drama.

Monica Lewinsky would forswear the limelight, refuse to write a book, find worth in her own self instead of in seducing power.

Hillary Clinton would set an example for many other betrayed wives by ceasing to tolerate her husband's compulsion, laying down inflexible conditions for the continuation of their marriage, and supporting him with tough love to meet those conditions.

The broadcast media would stop titillating us and start informing us, actually distinguishing between the relative importance of various breaches of public trust. They would clean up the "entertainment" they put out, so young people would not grow up believing that Clinton's or Lewinsky's behavior is in any way admirable.

The enemies of Bill Clinton would admit their envy and spitefulness, their joy in the shame of another, their hypocrisy insofar as they themselves have committed any of the kinds of acts they have, falsely or truly, blamed on him. They would devote their lives to prayer and good works and making restitution to the Clinton family.

Republicans in Congress would reign in the frothing extremists in their party and immediately rewrite the independent prosecutor law.

Then there's the rest of us. We elected this whole sorry bunch. We have let presidents before this one get away with far worse lies than this one. We tune in the hyperventilating media, salivate over the rumors, take horrified delight in the fall of the powerful. We have forgotten that the government and the power are, in fact, ours. If our leaders have no integrity, if our politics is full of distortion and character assassination, if our representatives serve the money instead of the people, if the media deliver muck to our minds, if we tolerate all this abuse in silence or with a snigger or with detached cynicism, we are ultimately responsible.

What do we need to do to put it right?