Joe Queenan: The Buck Stops Here. Though I Wish It Didn't

Joe Queenan | Posted on 02/26/10

When a public figure, be it a politician, an executive, or a sports personality, says, "The buck stops here," what he really means is: Your annoying questions stop here.

That trusty old saw "the buck stops here" is fast becoming one of the most overused clichés in America today. Politicians love to mouth it, invariably thrusting out their chests as they do so, for maximum effect. Executives do the same. Football coaches are particularly fond of this once noble expression, not to mention economists. Headline writers positively adore this full-service, one-size-fits-all play on words, and talk-show hosts are no slouches, either. Especially the macho ones.

"The buck stops here" thus joins such tiresome expressions as "connect the dots," "do the math," "hit the ground running," and the pusillanimously inane "it is what it is" in the realm of self-detonating banalities so lethal that they stop conversations dead in their tracks. After decades of yeoman service, "the buck stops here" has deteriorated into a linguistic cul-de-sac, the verbal equivalent of a Dead End or No Outlet sign, whose sole purpose is to warn anyone in the general vicinity: "Don't go there."

"Don't go there" is another maddeningly ubiquitous cliché.

When a public figure, be it a politician, an executive, or a sports personality, says, "The buck stops here," what he really means is: Your annoying questions stop here. I've accepted full verbal responsibility for whatever it is you are all incensed about, and if it will make you happy, I'll try to act chastened. But in exchange, I refuse to discuss the matter any further. It's not just that the buck stops here. Any further discussion of how the buck got here in the first place stops here, too. Are we clear on that?

The phrase "the buck stops here" is famously, indeed inexorably, associated with President Harry Truman, the rugged chief executive who epitomizes the values of single-mindedness, personal responsibility, and general toughness that Americans profess to admire. Truman, who only used the phrase once or twice in public discourse, had a plaque with the words "The Buck Stops Here" planted on his desk in the Oval Office. It was a gift from a prison warden, who, like Truman, happened to be an enthusiastic poker player. It refers to the concept of "buck passing," whereby a person who does not want to deal the cards in a poker game passes the deck - and the responsibility for dealing - to the person on his left. This is what President James Buchanan did in the years leading up to the Civil War, fastidiously keeping an extremely low profile while the furor over slavery was tearing the Union apart. Here, Mr. Lincoln, you handle it.

In ordinary speech, "passing the buck" has long been synonymous with ducking responsibility, while its converse, "The buck stops here," signifies that the speaker - in this case, Truman - recognizes that he is ultimately responsible for any policy or action that affects the well-being of the nation. Interestingly, the sign had a second, less celebrated message on the reverse side: "I'm from Missouri." "The Buck Stops Here" was catchier.

"The buck stops here" falls into that broad category of once-pithy utterances associated with a legendary historical figure that are then annexed, and ultimately desecrated, by people of far lesser magnitude who do not possess the moral authority to use such expressions to begin with. It would not be unfair to describe such individuals as Rhetorical Ewoks. A relevant parallel to the Truman situation exists in our popular culture. It is widely believed that Frank Sinatra grew to hate the song "My Way," a tune he initially liked very much, after it became a staple at people's funerals.

Sinatra probably wouldn't have minded if the words "I did it my way" were sung at the send-offs for Bob Hope or Joe DiMaggio or Douglas MacArthur or Sammy Davis, Jr., or anyone else who had achieved fame and fortune by following his own muse, dancing to the beat of his own drummer, or overcoming seemingly insuperable odds. But as soon as the broadcast of Sinatra's hit became standard operating procedure at funerals honoring the demise of every hard-charging precision tools salesman in America, and as soon as the song's lyrics began to suffer rote, ritual mutilation at the send-offs for every maverick orthodontist the Republic had ever produced, Sinatra understood that the coin of the realm had been irreparably debased. "My Way," it should be remembered, is a signature tune. A signature tune is a tune that realistically can only be sung by the person with his signature on it. Its message cannot be borrowed, adopted, transmuted, or reconstituted, much less hijacked. Otherwise, the song would have been called "Your Way."

Much the same misfortune has befallen the expression "the buck stops here." By using these feisty words, the speaker seeks to establish a psychic link with our beloved Give 'em Hell, Harry, hoping that the phrase will makes him seem vaguely Trumanesque. Reality, however, doesn't work that way; it never has. Just because you say, "Après moi, le deluge" doesn't make you Louis XIV. You can say, "Veni, Vidi, Vici" till you're blue in the face but it won't make anyone confuse you with Julius Caesar. It's the same error that politicians make when they invoke the name of Winston Churchill, seeking to conjure up an image of Britain's Finest Hour so that people will take them more seriously. How very, very futile. Quoting Churchill won't make you sound Churchillian. Especially if you do it with a twang. It's just another cheap oratorical stunt, and a shameless one at that. Winston Churchill saved Western civilization. You didn't.

There is more. When Truman used the phrase "the buck stops here," he was actually taking responsibility for something. Whether it was dropping the first atomic bomb or going to war in Korea or teeing off on Congress, Truman was unequivocally proclaiming that he and he alone had made the fateful decision in question and he alone would accept responsibility for it. This wasn't a pretense of taking responsibility; it was the real thing.

Think how far this wonderful expression has fallen from the pedestal it once graced. For today, "the buck stops here" has joined the ranks of those widely used, often admired, but ultimately meaningless clichés that threaten to drown our nation in a sea of blather. The only reason anyone ever says, "The buck stops here" these days is to avoid having to discuss why the buck didn't stop some other place earlier. Using the phrase is a dead giveaway that the layabouts or clowns who should have stopped the buck earlier will not be fired, reassigned, or even reprimanded, as that would suggest an additional level of incompetence on the speaker's part. When you get right down to it, the only reason anybody ever says that the buck stops here anymore is because there isn't anybody left to pass the buck to. If there were, they'd pass it.

This is not what Harry Truman had in mind.

blog comments powered by Disqus