Andrew Coyne sees ugly similarities in how Americans see Chris Christie and Canadians see Steve Harper. We have people in power like Christie and Harper because we're willing to condone them.
I can only attribute this comparatively favourable response to how debased our standards have become. Yes, the governor presented himself before the press, answered (almost) every question, and — apparently the clincher — apologized. But if it was a departure from the months of stonewalling and hiding out from the press that have become the norm here, it was still a fairly typical political apology.
It was all there: the repeated declarations that he “took responsibility” without in fact taking any; the expressions of contrition that made it clear he had nothing to be contrite about; the evocations of what a toll the whole affair had taken on him emotionally; and the almost instantaneous conversion of what ought reasonably to have been a moment for humility and introspection into yet another occasion to list off his many wonderful qualities. Change a few words here and there, and you could have been listening to the prime minister’s year-end interviews.
Indeed, the explanation both have offered is remarkably similar: My closest advisors and confidants conceived and carried out an ethically abhorrent plan, for my benefit but without my knowledge, then lied to me about it for months. Even supposing we take these at face value, it is hardly “taking responsibility” to blame it all on your staff, nor is it especially difficult to say you are “sorry” for other people’s mistakes. They are simply words politicians have been taught to say: They test well with focus groups, almost as well as “I’m not a focus-group tested politician.”
What would a leader who was genuinely interested in taking responsibility say in this situation? Again, let’s accept the “I didn’t know anything” story as true. To a leader who understood his responsibilities, this would be, if not irrelevant, certainly not the whole story. He would not himself offer it as an excuse; were it offered to him, he would wave it away.
“Whatever I knew or did not know,” he might say, “I hired these people, and more than that, I led them. A leader in any organization is responsible for setting the culture of that organization: the values, the standards, the expectations, the rewards and penalties. Indeed, that’s pretty much the job. The leader sets the tone — what he insists on, what he won’t tolerate — and those around him pass it on down the line, until it is transmitted, for good or ill, through the whole organization.”
He would conclude: “That did not happen here, and that is my fault.” At the very least, he would set out the steps he was taking to correct this failure — his failure. If the matter were serious enough, he would resign. That is what “taking responsibility” looks like. That is what it means.
That may sound odd, or naive. We have been taught not to expect that from our leaders. The measure by which we assess them now is their own expedience — “what they need to do” or “what they should say,” by which we mean not what is true or right but what might work.
But these are not simply crises to be managed. They go to the heart of each man’s claims to leadership. It is pointless to offer advice on how they should “handle” the issue, because they are the issue.