In politics, words tend to take on double meanings — one for politicians, another for the rest of us. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to the word "responsibility."
The latest example: Hillary Clinton’s latest statement on her illegal use of a private email server for US State Department business when she headed that department. "I take responsibility for that decision," Clinton says, betwixt and between claims that she didn’t break the law, that if she did break the law it’s no big deal, and that it really was just a matter of not making "the best choice."
Here’s how "responsibility" works:
- If you or I "take responsibility" for a purchase, we pay the bill or bad things happen. Maybe we get sued. At the very least, our credit ratings take a hit.
- If you or I "take responsibility" for a crime, we go to court, plead guilty, and get sentenced by a judge.
- When a politician "takes responsibility" for something, he or she is saying something very different: "OK, I ‘took responsibility’ — now let’s move along, forget all about it, and never, ever, ever suggest that I should face any actual consequences for my actions."
For example, in 1993 US Attorney General Janet Reno and US President Bill Clinton took turns "taking responsibility" for the FBI’s massacre of 76 men, women and children at a church facility outside of Waco, Texas.
Neither Reno nor Clinton resigned from office in disgrace. In fact, Clinton finished his term and was re-elected, while Reno went on to become the second longest-serving Attorney General in US history.
Neither Reno nor Clinton faced criminal charges or impeachment over the affair. Clinton was later impeached for lying about an affair with an intern. But arson resulting in 76 deaths? Hey, no big deal. They "took responsibility," right?
So here, 22 years later, comes that other Clinton. She wants to become — in fact, she she considers herself entitled to become — President of the United States. Pursuant to which she has graciously, if belatedly, agreed to mouth the words "I take responsibility," as part of a script in which your role and mine is to reward that statement by shutting up and getting out of her way.
Well, maybe. Then again, maybe the rest of us bit part actors will flub our lines in USA Network’s presentation of "The Hillary Clinton Story."
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org).