"Of course I bear responsibility. My Lord, I'm secretary of defense. Write it down."
Donald Rumsfeld at a news conference October 11, 2006
When did the phrase, "I take full responsibility," come to mean not taking any real responsibility at all?
Talk about a numerical tribute to American hypocrisy, Google up that phrase and you'll find some 212,000 references to it.
Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House, is only the latest to accept full responsibility for some outrage but only verbally. Evidence mounts that other high-ranking Republicans in the House or their staffers were aware of a colleague's suspicious e-mails to House pages.
All over the country, police and sheriff's deputies are sitting in dark little rooms monitoring the Internet for just the kind of messages this congressman was sending young people. But in his case nobody thought to call the cops. Instead it was all kept in-house, or rather in-House.
So far Mark Foley, he of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, has been the only one to resign his office. But not without making excuses for his conduct via his lawyer, of course. He's an alcoholic, he was molested as a child, etc. In their own way, his excuses are as repellent as his e-mails.
The Brits handle these things better, or at least used to. Remember John Profumo? He was the Cabinet minister who got caught in a sex scandal, and then did something really bad. He lied about it to his colleagues in the House of Commons. Not done, old boy. Bad form and all that. Especially for an officer and a gentleman, and John Profumo was an aristocrat to boot. Of Italian heritage, he was technically the 5th Baron Profumo of the Kingdom of Sardinia, though he never used the title.
Jack Profumo signed up for the Army on the outbreak of the war in 1939 (Northampton Yeomanry), and in 1940 became the youngest MP in the House of Commons when he was put up by the Tories in an unexpected by-election at Kettering. The 25-year-old Profumo would cast his first vote as one of the 30 Conservative members of the House who joined with Labor to bring down the Chamberlain government and open the way for Churchill and the British Empire's finest hour.
Mentioned in dispatches during the North African campaign, young Profumo landed in Normandy on D-Day with an armored brigade. Then, after serving on Field Marshal Alexander's staff in Italy, he was discharged as a brigadier and awarded an OBE (military). He would lose his seat in the Labor landslide of 1945, but return as MP for Stratford-on-Avon in 1951 and begin his smooth political rise. By 1960 he was secretary of state for war and member of the Privy Council.
Then came his fall, and it was a doozy.
In early 1963, he was accused of cavorting with Christine Keeler, tart extraordinaire. To add security risk to scandal, she also had a thing going with a Soviet naval attache, that is, spy.
At first MP Profumo tried to brazen his way out of it with a concocted story, the help of Tory colleagues, the full backing of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and a perfectly straight face. "There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler," Mr. Profumo announced in a great display of righteous indignation. In its time, that line was repeated by lovers of political irony the way "I never had sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" is today.
With an investigation pending, the Rt. Hon. Mr. Profumo confessed the truth to his wife Valerie over lunch in Venice. Her reaction? "Oh, darling, we must go home as soon as we can and face up to it." They did. Not since Mrs. Alexander Hamilton supported her husband throughout that unfortunate business with Mrs. Reynolds has a loving spouse shown such grace under pressure.
Caught in his lie, John Profumo resigned his high office in disgrace, and the Macmillan government would fall soon thereafter. It was quite a crash.
The rising star had plummeted to earth. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Profumo showed up at Toynbee Hall, the London soup kitchen and settlement house, and volunteered for menial work. It took considerable persuasion, but he was finally talked into giving up his janitor's mop and heading a fund-raising drive for the charity. It was successful enough to keep Toynbee Hall afloat.
And for the next four decades, the 5th Baron Profumo would devote himself to helping the poor of London's East End.
Why would a man do such a thing, especially a man with a private fortune who could have gone off and lived a quiet life of luxury anywhere he chose?
It's as hard to imagine a political figure doing such a thing in these times as it is to explain why he would do it. Call it a sense of honor within an understanding that there is no real acceptance of responsibility without making some personal sacrifice.
In 1975, John Profumo, OBE was advanced to CBE in recognition of his good works. As Valerie Profumo would later say of her husband, summing up in a few plain words what Sophocles was trying to tell us in all his Oedipus plays, "It isn't what happens to a man, it's what he does with it that matters."
John Profumo never complained, he never explained. He didn't write his memoirs to counter Christine Keeler's attempt to live the rest of her life off the Profumo Affair. He had nothing to say about the TV docudramas that, for dramatic effect, added a lot of fiction to the bad-enough facts. Through it all, the man just Went On.
At a dinner on her 70th birthday, Margaret Thatcher made a point of seating Mr. Profumo next to the Queen. "His has been a very good life," said Lady Thatcher, and who would dispute her? How strange: The Hon. Gentleman turned out to be an honorable gentleman.
On his death earlier this year, the Yorkshire Post would contrast "Mr. Profumo's 40-year silence with the nature of ministerial resignations witnessed in the modern era. Far from accepting responsibility, disgraced ministers, both Labor and Conservative, have sought to exploit their misjudgment for financial gain before, in some cases, resuming their political careers. This is why voters hold politicians in such low regard, and why there was much to commend in John Profumo's quiet dignity."
In this country, politicians may accept responsibility, too, but only in words. It's the political equivalent of confession without repentance. And certainly without atonement. That is, worthless.
Donald Rumsfeld is still secretary of defense long after Abu Ghraib and a whole tragic chain of miscalculations both strategic and tactical even though by now nothing might honor his office so well as his leaving it.
Dennis Hastert is still speaker of the House after the Foley scandal and continuing disgrace. (More is surely to come.) At this point it's not clear which is worse that the speaker knew what was happening on his watch or only should have known.
He's now offered to fire any staffers responsible for not blowing the whistle on the errant congressman when somebody should have, but he isn't about to give up the speakership himself.
There's a principle in the military: A commander is responsible for whatever his unit does or fails to do. It's a matter of honor. What a pity the principle has never caught on among politicians. Which helps explain why our military is generally more respected than our political class.
Amid all the claims but only claims of responsibility in this unfolding scandal, this much becomes clear: An American political party hasn't so richly deserved to lose control of the House of Representatives since, well, the Democrats in 1994.