Where the buck always stops

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    ‘To put it in a less graceful way, now that the [email protected] has hit the fan, it’s all over the Office of the President.’

    HARRY S. Truman of Independence, Missouri was never supposed to be president. Twice over. First, he was chosen to be the running mate of Franklin D. Roosevelt when the latter was running for his fourth term as US president in 1944 only because Democratic party bosses wanted a “safe” spare tire, who, they figured, would be easier to control if he became president. And so, after FDR died of TB, the man who never had a college degree and who was once a railroad timekeeper was now president of the United States.

    And then in 1948, running on his own, Truman was so far behind his Republican opponent Thomas Dewey that the latter hardly campaigned and, on election eve, the Chicago Tribune ran an issue with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” But Truman had actually pulled off an upset, and a smiling, bespectacled President Truman posed for that iconic photo showing him holding up the newspaper with the headline he had proven wrong.

    HST, as Truman has been referred to, is one of 10 US presidents I rate highly (the others being POTUS#s 1, 3, 16, 26, 32, 35, 40, 42 and 44) not because he presided over the end of World War 2, or had the will to use the atomic bombs, or had launched the Marshall Plan to save Europe or had the guts to fire the popular Douglas MacArthur, but because of one simple sign he had on his desk that, in my eyes, encapsulated the enormity of the responsibility borne by the office of President.

    The sign said simply “The Buck Stops Here.”

    So much of leadership as practiced today evidenced a new breed of leaders who are instead quick to pass the buck and to blame others. The current occupant of the White House is one.

    Remember how, at the start of the pandemic, Donald Trump kept on telling the Americans in February and March that the virus was “under control?” He kept boasting that by July the worst would be over, and that they had everything in place to control this “Wuhan virus.”

    When the virus began to spread beyond almost anyone’s imagination, there was Trump saying that deaths will not go beyond 60,000, and that the Federal government had enough ventilators, and that all the states needed to do was ask. Then deaths soared beyond 60,000 and Trump began blaming the governors and the mayors for not acting fast enough. But when the governors of Michigan and Virginia imposed strict lockdown orders, what did Trump do? He urged his followers to “liberate” Michigan and Virginia and proudly told anyone willing to listen that he was not going to wear a mask because the scientists didn’t have it right.

    Today, there are over 3.6 million cases and over 130,000 dead in the United States and the number is still growing, but the President of the United States is blaming everyone – particularly Democratic governors and mayors as well as medical experts – except himself.

    In fact, in his eyes, the only reason why the number of cases keeps growing is because America “keeps testing.” It’s like telling your daughter that if she doesn’t take a pregnancy test then she can’t be pregnant – despite that obvious bump she has been carrying.
    There is no situation more stark to demonstrate where the buck stops than a health crisis like COVID-19.

    Here in the Philippines, we have seen a Cabinet member take passing the buck and raising it to an art form. In early March the secretary of health blamed his department for being too slow on the draw with contact tracing, vowing that heads will roll. A few months later, on national television, he again blamed his people for certain failures as he made a report to the President and the nation. Am sure the secretary was on pins and needles, because in early March, when the Philippines just had a handful of cases, he had boasted that we were a model of containment, thanks to the wise decisions that the President had taken. Three months later we were the model of contamination in the Western Pacific region of the World Health Organization, and the DOH was scrambling ever so often to revise the way it reported cases in order to downplay the real news and play up the window dressing.

    As I once quipped on Facebook: America has Dr. Fauci, we have Dr. Faulty.

    But the President, in a way, restated the obvious. When people were clamoring for the head of the secretary, the President stepped in and threw the full weight of his reputation behind the embattled Dr. Faulty and effectively made it clear that the buck stopped on the President’s desk when it came to COVID-19. Which has always been the case since Day One, simply because every member of the Cabinet is an alter ego of the President, who personally chose them for that role. Anytime any of them turned out to be unfit for the post, either through shenanigans or sheer incompetence, then the buck stops at the President’s desk and he decides whether to shove the cabinet member out the door, or (as in this case) to use the enormous weight of his reputation to say “I take responsibility for this.”

    The way the Philippine government has been handling (some would say mishandling) the COVID-19 pandemic that now threatens to infect more people than the UP experts predicted it would by end-July, was, is and always will be the President’s ultimate responsibility. Over the last five months he has kept Dr. Faulty at his side despite what to me appear enough reasons to show him the door; and yet he has created various posts to deal with the pandemic, including naming four new czars, none of whom is the embattled secretary. Even when an outbreak was going out of control in Cebu, it was the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, a retired general, whom the President sent to handle the situation. And while all of these have left me wondering what hold Dr. Faulty may have on the President that makes him seem irreplaceable, I’ve realized it only bring us all back to the main point, that in the end, the buck stops at the desk of the President.

    To put it in a less graceful way, now that the [email protected] has hit the fan, it’s all over the Office of the President.