David Greenberg: Admitting Failure, Without Being a Failure ... President's Dilemma

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Greenberg, a history and journalism professor at Rutgers University, is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image” and “Calvin Coolidge.”]

PRESIDENT BUSH’S speech Wednesday night had to strike a perfect pitch. He had to defend the war that will define his legacy while admitting to enough error to regain credibility with the public. Consequently, commentators are still trying to figure out whether he conceded mistakes, showed regret or intends to change course at all.

In this respect, Mr. Bush’s speech follows in that great American oratorical tradition: the presidential mea culpa.

Figuring out how to acknowledge failure without seeming like a failure is a time-honored occupational hazard of politics. But not until the 20th century did presidents govern mainly by mobilizing public opinion through rhetoric, and only with the rise of broadcasting did the celebrated “televised speech to the nation” become a staple of White House damage control.

While these confessions may work in the short term, they rarely work long-term magic. That typically requires a new course of action.

Ronald Reagan, for example, gave a relatively tepid mea culpa in addressing a Senate commission’s findings that he hadn’t leveled with the public in the Iran-contra scandal.

“A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,” he said in March 1987. “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

But President Reagan won praise for taking responsibility, and, more critically, for committing to an overhaul of White House personnel and policy. He renounced the covert wrongdoings of his former aides and eventually struck a landmark arms-control treaty with the Soviet Union.

Another buck-stops-here performance was John F. Kennedy’s press conference after the Bay of Pigs, when American-backed Cuban rebels were routed in a bid to overthrow Fidel Castro.

“Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan,” President Kennedy said, concluding, “I am the responsible officer of the government.”

His popularity soared. Over time, what sealed his reputation was his later calls for a re-evaluation of the cold war and for a nuclear test-ban treaty. Other presidents have failed to capitalize on their dramatic speeches. In March 1968, Lyndon Johnson called a halt to bombing in Vietnam and ended his re-election bid, while vowing to redouble his efforts to achieve peace. But the goodwill faded as he kept the Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, tethered to a failed strategy until it was too late....

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