When Presidents Make Mistakes
DANIEL SCHORR reporting:
Campaigning in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt made a speech in Pittsburgh promising that, if elected, he would balance the budget.
LIANE HANSEN, host:
NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.
SCHORR: A few years later, with the budget far out of balance, President Roosevelt asked his speechwriter, Sam Rosenman, how he was to explain. Rosamond said, `Deny you have ever been in Pittsburgh.'
The presidential climb-down is an interesting phenomenon. The president rarely says, as New York's Mayor Fiorello La Guardia once said, `When I make a mistake, it's a beaut.' A favorite defense is using the passive voice. When the Iran-Contra scandal erupted--selling missles to Iran, using the proceeds to finance the Contra rebels in Nicaragua--President Reagan first remained silent, then finally said, `Mistakes were made.' We were allowed to infer that they were not his mistakes.
So now President Bush, whose first gingerly approach to the weapons-of-mass-destruction claim used to justify the invasion of Iraq was to exhume the Reagan passive voice: `Mistakes were made.' When that didn't prove sufficient to check the downward slide in his approval ratings, the president tried a variation: `It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong.'
Turned out to be? There had been talk with the British government before the invasion of our `fixing' the intelligence, and former Ambassador Joseph Wilson got into trouble with the White House for shooting down a report about Saddam Hussein trying to buy uranium in Africa.
Finally, Mr. Bush said in his speech this past week, `As president, I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.' That has a nice feeling about it, a sense that whatever the troops do, their commander has the ultimate responsibility simply because he is the commander. Someday, a president may borrow that famously forthright line from Fiorello La Guardia: `When I make a mistake, it's a beaut.' But don't count on it to happen soon.
This is Daniel Schorr.
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