This article will reveal the secret of life, describe a liaison with a star of Broadway and the silver screen, and provide all politicians—and especially Hillary Clinton—with a guide to success in their chosen profession. That’s a tall order and will require a little historical perspective. So return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, and in particular to a dark episode of U.S. history entitled: “The Bay of Pigs.”
The effort, in 1961, to unseat Fidel Castro by invading Cuba with a group of CIA-trained dissidents set a record for blithering incompetence that would stand for 42 years. As the invaders trooped off to the Cuban prison camps, President Kennedy gave a press conference. It was April 21, 1961, and I was on a couch in the apartment of the future star of stage and screen whose divorced mother had made the strategic mistake of working swing shift. To be honest, news conferences were not uppermost in my thoughts, but as I leaned in to pursue what was, I met with a stiff arm to the solar plexus. Kennedy was on the tube and the future star wanted to hear what he had to say. (Did I mention she was an honor student?) She couldn’t have known, of course, but we were about to hear something unique and remarkable. Not the substance of what Kennedy said, which was a rehash of the evasions and outright lies his Administration had been peddling since the scope of the disaster had become clear. No, it was much more unusual than that. Asked about who was responsible for the debacle, Kennedy said he “had no wish to conceal responsibility” because it was “quite obvious”: “I am the responsible officer of government.”
It stayed with me (the statement, not the relationship; the future star dropped me like a bad habit soon afterward, and failed when she became famous to mention me in her autobiography). A few years later, I was in a graduate seminar taught by a professor named Bill Rood, an idol of neo-conservatives, who argued that Kennedy’s acceptance of responsibility had been meaningless. Rood didn’t like Kennedy (or much of anyone else as far as I could tell) and was particularly indignant that the President seemed to have dodged responsibility for the Bay of Pigs by the simple act of accepting it. That fact hadn’t escaped Kennedy, either. Arthur Schlesinger, writing in A Thousand Days, tells of Kennedy musing a few days afterward that the failure seemed to have made him more popular than any of his successes. That popularity gave Kennedy the political leeway to ax a long list of people—beginning with Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell at the CIA, who were the real villains of the piece.
The lesson was there to be grasped, but it would be a few more years before I completely understood it.
The year was 1979. I was a Foreign Service officer taking notes at an interagency meeting to discuss what was to be done about the discovery of a Soviet military brigade in Cuba. President Carter had called this “unacceptable,” although it turned out, when the smoke had cleared, that we had agreed to it as part of the settlement in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The meeting was ostensibly to discuss what to do. But as I scribbled away, the light dawned: These long post-disaster interagency meetings were never (or only incidentally) about getting us out of a mess, but rather about manipulating the blame for getting us in. In this case, was it the CIA for failing to notice the Soviet brigade, or State for ignoring the intelligence, or the President for calling the brigade unacceptable when there was nothing we could do about it? It dawned on me that nothing could be done until this first vital step of assessing blame—this symbolic sacrifice to the gods of bureaucracy—had been accomplished, usually by blaming someone who wasn’t there or, if in attendance, was powerless. (In Genesis, of course, it’s the woman.) I had been at hundreds of meetings just like it, and realized with a sinking heart that I was destined to attend hundreds more. The future stretched out bleak before me.
But then, an inspiration: I would take the blame, and take it early and often. I put my new plan into action, and the result was nothing less than spectacular. I was suddenly being invited to many more meetings, which tended to be shorter for my presence; my career (which theretofore might have been described as “becalmed”) became promising; I was getting jobs others envied; the pitying looks of contemporaries disappeared. I tried it at home; it worked just as well.
There was more to it, of course. Besides taking the blame, I had to have a recommendation for something to be done. But that was an advantage, too. Everyone was so intent on avoiding the bullet that no one else had been thinking about what to do next, so my suggestions were usually taken—and taken with a sense of relief. I could be culprit and savior at the same time!
I refined this technique until eventually I was taking the blame when I was to blame, and taking it when others were to blame, and even preempting before anyone could decide whether blame really attached. I grew positively indignant when someone would confess before I had a chance to. My motive may have been cynical and self-promoting; but I had become a stand-up guy.
And that’s the point, really. Presidents are rewarded not so much for success or failure as for standing up—for owning the outcome whatever it is. That’s what Kennedy did (on that one occasion) and what Nixon would later fail to do. Consider Reagan and trading arms for hostages (Who, me?) or Ford when he denied the countries of Eastern Europe were Soviet satellites in a debate with Carter (I know what I meant!). Consider in particular Waco and the Branch Dravidian fiasco. Here was black-helicopter government at its worst, lashing out against the innocent and the guilty alike for reasons no one could quite explain. Bill Clinton certainly wasn’t explaining anything; as the stretchers were being removed from the burnt-out shell of the Branch Dravidian compound, he was unavailable for comment. Not so Attorney General Janet Reno. She had been on the job only three weeks and was, in any case, only nominally in charge of the FBI and ATF paramilitaries who carried out the attack. But she walked into the briefing room and owned it. It had happened on her watch. She was the responsible officer of the government. By that simple acceptance of responsibility, she became politically untouchable and free to torment Clinton for the rest of his presidency.
Which brings us, as I foretold you, to Hillary Clinton. She is the most accomplished public servant of her generation, intelligent, informed, earnest, and energetic, but driven, unfortunately, to twist facts and logic into great knots to avoid admitting mistakes. Her opponent is an ignoramus whose mouth is hardwired to his brain stem. She has a mostly united party behind her. He is surrounded by second-rate functionaries of the sort who are willing to go with anyone who pulls over to the curb. It’s Lisa Simpson vs. Krusty the Clown and it should be an unequal battle. In fact, she’s vulnerable. I’m confident even if the worst happens that the arc of history will eventually bend back toward justice, but it won’t be in my time, so please, Mrs. Clinton, take my advice. Give a speech about what you have learned from your mistakes. It will involve admitting you’ve made a few. They haven’t killed you so they must have made you stronger. But are you strong enough to talk about the stumbles along your path? If you are, you will be President. Otherwise, it just might be Krusty.