The End of Accountability

After the collision of two Navy warships and the consequent loss of many sailors’ lives, this sage editorial advice appeared in the May 14, 1952, Wall Street Journal: 

“On the sea there is a tradition older even than the traditions of [the United States] itself and wiser in its age than this new custom. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them accountability.

“This accountability is not for the intentions but for the deed. The Captain of a ship, like the captain of a state, is given honor and privileges and trust beyond other men. But let him set the wrong course, let him touch ground, let him bring disaster to his ship or to his men, and he must answer for what he has done.

“It is cruel, this accountability of good and well intentioned men. But the choice is that or an end to responsibility and finally, as the cruel sea has taught, an end to the confidence and trust in the men who lead, for men will not long trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability for what they do.”

Every military officer, whether commissioned or non-commissioned, learns, accepts, and follows these simple rules:  If you are the leader, you are responsible and accountable for the results of your leadership. If you succeed in your mission, then the men and women under your command share in your victory.  If you fail, however, then that is your burden, and yours alone, to bear.

Having never served his Country–much less in the military—our present Commander in Chief never learned and, still, to date, remains oblivious to these elemental rules of leadership. If something goes right in America, he falls all over himself patting his own back.  On the other hand, when something goes wrong—and God knows there have been way more wrongs than rights—it’s always someone else’s fault.

Case in point: at his recent North Carolina rally, his base started the “Send her back” chant. Trump, not surprisingly, loved it.  He basked in it. He owned it. Except when it backfired. Then, of course, he did what he always does—tried to walk it back in a manner that placed blame on somebody else.  Trump later disclaimed the chant, said that he didn’t like it and that he tried to stop it by speaking over it quickly.

He didn’t.  The video clip shows him gazing out over the chanting crowd—with that stupid I-just-let-a-silent-fart-in-church smile on his face–for a full 13 seconds before he started speaking.  He didn’t disavow the chant until after public condemnation of it went viral.

And Senator Steve Daines did the same thing.  He was with Trump all the way, supporting the racist chant, waving the Flag—until Trump changed his mind.  Then, true to form, Daines changed his mind and condemned the chant, just like his boss. It was OK, until it wasn’t OK.

Neither of these politicians had the guts to own his mistake; neither held themselves accountable for supporting a racist and vituperative insult to the intended Congresswomen. Neither had the spine to publically apologize to the Congresswomen who were the butt of the racist chant.  

Nor did either Trump or Daines apologize to the other Americans who were effectively told that should go back to whatever country they came from.  Those other Americans would include the 13% of lawmakers in the 116th Congress who are immigrants or the children of immigrants. And, would also include the 11.4 million married-couple households (21 percent of all married-couple households in America in 2011) that had at least one spouse born in another country and the nearly 13 percent (7.3 million) households that had two foreign-born spouses, and 7 percent (4.1 million) that had one native-born and one foreign-born spouse.

One can only imagine the fireworks if the first lady, Melania Trump, appeared in public and was met with a “Send her back” chant.  After all, she was an undocumented immigrant at one time. What if some racist crowd yelled at Mitch McConnell’s Taiwanese wife, “Send her back.”  

No doubt, a sanctimonious and hypocritical Trump and Daines would do backflips condemning such conduct—as would the rest of Trump’s party.  But, of course, the rules are different when it is your wife or when it is a high-profile member of your party that is targeted for racism.

Sadly, Trump’s prevarication and blame-casting has occurred so often and so consistently, that deceit has become the new normal in the White House.  What used to be shocking, is now simply mind-numbing. One knows the President is lying whenever is lips are moving, and, since dishonesty is to be expected, few are surprised anymore when it occurs.  Senator Daines is no better, nor are the rest of Trump’s wannabes in Congress and in public service.

But, make no mistake, Trump’s failure—and that of his minions– becomes ours when we do not hold them responsible and accountable. When we accept their falsehoods as truth; when their fabrication, distortion, and equivocation become normal; when their mendacity, untruthfulness and pretense are no longer judged as their character failures, but, rather just “Trump being Trump–” or Daines supporting his boss–; when they support and encourage racist, vituperative rants and chants (until those backfire on them); then it is we the people who have committed the unforgivable sin of acquiescence.

As the rules of military leadership predict—as the “cruel sea” of experience teaches—an end to responsibility brings with it the end of confidence in those that lead.  We cannot trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability for what they do and say.

It is a lesson accepted and well known for those that serve.  

For the rest of us, it is a lesson long overdue.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

James C. Nelson

James C. Nelson (Ret) was an associate justice of the Montana Supreme Court. He took office in May of 1993, following an appointment by then-governor Marc Racicot, and he retired on December 31, 2012.


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  • Thank you, Justice Nelson. Your time on the bench was a valued service to all of Montana, and you continue to serve in your well-earned retirement.

  • KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid. Legislators fix it or get voted out. Immigration, pass a law that requires immigrants to apply for immigration at a safe country US consulate or at a point of entry and anyone who enters illegally will automatically be denied an application for immigration. Sorry, Dems you may not be able to add more representatives to your sanctuary cities with the new census. Build the wall as a choke point and pass the law so immigrants stop crossing then the any persons attempting enter will likely criminals like, MS-13, or Meth mules. Vote and give the Republicans back the House and Senate then see change. Trump is working on doing this now with immigration. Democrats you have over a year to bring a bill forward in the House or be replaced. Healthcare, again, Democrats you have over a year and good luck with single-payer healthcare. It even failed in Bernie Sander’s New Hampshire. Colorado voted it out. It never got out of committee in California when they seen the added cost. Google it. Again, vote Republicans back in the House and Senate and see a market base system like the Graham-Cassidy bill that would cover preexisting and fund low income medicare, contrary to many lies.

    The clock is ticking. What have the House Dems have not accomplished so far?

  • Keep playing the race card.
    Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, the new Lion King are racist.
    Is this your way winning voters?
    Years ago during the building of the Alaska pipeline I seen a bumper sticker that that said “Happiness is seeing a Texan going south with an Oklahoman under each arm.” Are they raciest? How many of you have said or heard a friend say that they wish the Californians would go back. Are you or your friends racist or is this only applicable if it involves minorities? A whole week of news around the squad and almost none on the candidates. Very smart. Do you work for the reelect Trump campaign?

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