Has Bush Learned His Lesson?

Dust off Harry Truman’s old Oval Office sign about where the buck stops. George W. Bush finally seems to have arrived.

Call it a significant step in the maturation process of a public official or an attempt to regain his political footing in the face of considerable erosion in national support for his presidency, or both. But the fact is that President Bush’s decision to accept responsibility for the federal government’s failures in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina was refreshingly welcome, if somewhat overdue.

Former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, along with his Republican colleague, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, has done as much as anyone else to point up the country’s shortcomings and needs in security and first response. Hamilton called the president’s mea culpa “remarkable” and added that he takes much “encouragement” in it.

“Bravo,” the one-time Indiana congressman told reporters.

After co-chairing a bipartisan commission assigned to sort out what went wrong r 9/11 and how to make it right, Hamilton and Kean are now heading a privately sponsored effort to pressure both the White House and Congress to follow through with more of the panel’s recommendations. It is an endeavor aimed at defying the historic pattern of such commissions _ which most often make recommendations with a flourish and then disband, never to be heard from again, with their reports and recommendations mainly consigned to academic scholarship, if not to the dust bin.

Bush, with an aversion to admitting bad decisions in the past, clearly had nowhere to hide with the current disaster. Mistakes and incompetence occurred in front of millions of Americans glued to television sets as the drama unfolded. But to give the president the benefit of the doubt, his minions had a large hand in causing their boss a great deal of problems. He was at best uninformed or at worst misled by those he had put in charge.

It never ceases to amaze that politicians out of power are always demanding that those in control confess that they are incompetent. Since Bush took office, Democrats have been clamoring for him to announce that he was wrong about Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction and any number of mistakes.

At one of his few press conferences, he was even asked to enumerate his errors.

Those of us who used to hang around the White House in the old days could only imagine how Lyndon Johnson might have answered that question. And as a matter of fact, Truman only talked about the buck stopping with him. But he seldom applied the slogan when the time came.

The same syndrome exists with judicial confirmation hearings. Senators not from the nominating party constantly want candidates to destroy their chances of approval by admitting to some outrageous position. That is particularly true during the consideration of a nominee to the Supreme Court.

What the president does to change the public’s post-Katrina view of the national-security apparatus will tell us how serious he is in accepting responsibility. Like Hamilton, I am inclined to take him at his word and believe he will do everything possible to fix a security system that is clearly broken. But even if that is the case, there always is the problem of a Congress so rife with partisanship it seems often at odds with the national interest.

Hamilton _ who enjoyed 34 years of distinguished congressional service, including a number of them as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee _ sees today’s lawmakers as failing to come to grips with the more profound problems of the day. They are, he said, always dealing around the margins. This and other factors, he argues convincingly, might lead to a national undoing. It is quite possible “our problems will overwhelm us,” he says. The nation’s survival “is not written in granite.”

Bush may have taken much of the sting out of the blame game that already has erupted by assuming the burden on his own shoulders, despite the fact an investigation is bound to uncover any number of mistakes committed at all levels of government, many in the legislative branch.

Only time will tell if the president has grown so much in office that he can accept and acknowledge that he is the place where the buck must always stop.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)