Passing the Buck

Who needs responsibility when there's accountability?


Today's Republican Party has spent a great deal of time, energy, and money attempting to retool its image as hip, modern, and responsive to the needs of a wide demographic. How else to explain the presence of both an American Samoan wrestling champion and the '70s-era diva Chaka Khan, self-sung "every-woman" of soul, at the Republican National Convention last summer? Or ex-Menudo member Ricky Martin shaking his bon-bon at George W. Bush's inauguration bash? Or Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch's surely studied invocation of Alanis Mor-issette and Ted Nugent during the recent hearings on copyright laws? The GOP seems ready to try anything to be cool, short of adding a Nike swoosh to its official letterhead.

As Sen. Hatch's invocation of Ted Nugent attests, such efforts have for the most part failed spectacularly. Someone might want to tell the Beehive State's senior senator -- an amateur musician in his own right -- that the Nuge, a.k.a. the Motor City Madman and the author of such crowd pleasers as "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang" and "Yank Me, Crank Me," hasn't had a bona fide solo hit since before the first Bush administration.

But Republicans, with Dubya in the lead, have indeed managed a successful makeover of at least one of their party's stoniest aspects: They no longer prattle on like Ward Cleaver lecturing the Beaver about "personal responsibility." Nowadays, they're far more likely to prattle on about accountability.

The term figures perhaps most prominently in Bush's scripts for education reform, which he swears will "make sure that the accountability system has got some teeth to it." But he's hardly alone in using the word. When GOP media consultant Mike Murphy talks about how Hollywood films poison society, he moans that "no lefty pop culture titan is ever held accountable." When Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah) joins the Democrats in condemning Big Tobacco, he insists that "there should be accountability." And when Weekly Standard editor and former Dan Quayle pup-petmaster William Kristol ponders the April spy plane fiasco, he stresses that "we need to hold the Chinese accountable."

A Nexis search reveals that the word's usage has roughly doubled in American newspapers during the past five years, both in direct quotes and in reporters' own vocabularies. So Republicans may be helping to stir a larger cultural wave -- or simply riding one that started without them.

Either way, the word is even catching on outside the political realm. Though advertising executives don't always correctly predict shifting public tastes, they can be eerily perceptive. Accountability now looms in 8-foot-tall letters on a billboard near my apartment in West Los Angeles, marketing the services of one of California's largest banks. Its appearance must be responding to a trend that has little to do with finance, since one assumes that "accountability" should be the very least a bank has to offer to prospective account holders.

Despite such widespread deployment, the rhetorical swap hasn't attracted much commentary. Yet the move deserves to be lauded for what it is: One of the deftest political maneuvers since William Henry Harrison traded whiskey for votes in the 1840 presidential election. Republicans have discovered that while the stodgy responsibility may be an appropriate centerpiece for a personal moral philosophy, it's simply got no place at all in politics. Accountability, meanwhile, is a word that every great leader needs in the top shelf of his linguistic toolbox. Why? Because unlike responsibility, it implies that any given problem is entirely someone else's fault.

From a distance, responsibility and accountability may seem like interchangeable terms. But under the glass, they are subtly, significantly distinct. Responsibility connotes a freely made promise to carry out a certain duty. According to Webster's Ninth, "RESPONSIBLE implies holding a specific office, duty or trust." Accountability, on the other hand, is the reporting part of responsibility. In essence, through accountability, you force someone to keep their promise with a threat; you ensure that someone else fulfills their responsibility. The dictionary puts it this way: "ACCOUNTABLE suggests imminence of retribution for unfulfilled trust or violated obligation."

In political discourse, accountability shifts blame. Responsibility implies that something is my fault -- always a tiresome thing, especially for a politician, since it invites voters' recrimination and reproach. Not so with accountability, which inevitably directs voter attention over there, across the room, where those dumb louts are really falling down on the job.

In politics, nothing is more important than strong convictions -- especially the conviction that someone else is the root of all troubles. And nothing is more satisfying than holding others accountable.