The Corner

Politics & Policy

With Hillary, the Buck Stops Anywhere but Here

(Spencer Platt/Getty)

Addressing the legal questions surrounding Hillary Clinton’s email evasions, our friend Shannen Coffin noted last night:

The Federal Records Act says that the obligation of the department is actually the obligation of the secretary. The Federal Records Act says that the secretary is responsible for preserving all of the records of the agency. It falls on the Secretary of State to be the responsible party.

That is important as a legal point, but, the law aside: Isn’t this exactly what we would expect regardless? The Federal Records Act simply codifies in one particular area what we already regularly take for granted generally: The head of a government body is responsible for that body.

The principle at stake here — although it is complex – we recognize intuitively. It is what Harry Truman was getting at when he said, “The buck stops here.” He was acknowledging that, as president, he was representatively responsible for the entire United States executive branch.

Example: Say federal tax collectors, who fall under the purview of the executive branch, were applying operative tax law differently to the president’s political opponents than to his political allies. Even if he never spoke to one of those rogue agents in, I don’t know, let’s say Cincinnati, he is still responsible for their actions — because he took an oath of office that made him the head of that entire executive apparatus. Their actions are his actions, in a manner of speaking.

The same was true of Hillary Clinton when she accepted the position of Secretary of State. She did not just “take a job.” She entered into a representative role. She voluntarily accepted that the actions — mistakes, missteps, crimes — of her employees were hers.

But her response to “Emailgate” is a complete abdication of those responsibilities, which have since become electorally inconvenient. Consider: She has defended her actions by saying that a) everything she did was legal, and b) other State Department employees, to whom she sent emails, should have recorded her correspondence. First, having failed to break the law is not exactly a glowing recommendation of one’s fitness for office. And second (and this is the more important point), it should be a downright repulsive response from a leader to, in the moment of trouble, try to shift responsibility onto her underlings. Leadership in representative government means that you assume the risk associated with leading lots of people; you recognize that the people you lead might screw up, that it might have nothing to do with you, and that you bear responsibility for it nonetheless. Hillary has done precisely the opposite.

By recognizing that the buck stopped with him, Harry Truman was recognizing the grave and enormous burden of being president. It was an act of moral seriousness. But Hillary refused to take responsibility for her previous corner of government. Why on earth, then, should we elevate her over the whole thing?

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