The Buck Stops Here

Happy Birthday, Harry.

Truman is known for popularizing the saying “the buck stops here”, but I can find only two mentions in his official papers. At a 1951 DNC dinner he talked about the sign on his desk that says “the buck stops here” when describing his four main jobs: president and chief executive, head of the Democratic Party, “social chief of state”, and Commander-in-Chief. In a 1952 address to the Army War College, he described decision-making as a definitive act for presidents:

You know, it’s easy enough for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you–and on my desk I have a motto which says “The buck stops here”–the decision has to be made. That decision may be right. It may be wrong. If it is wrong, and it has been shown that it is wrong, I have no desire to cover it up. I admit it, and try to make another decision that will meet the situation. And that is what any President of the United States has to do. Just bear that in mind.

[Truman made the comments in reference to the Communist "takeover" of China, saying also that "We hope it will not be an irrevocable loss."]

Other presidents used the phrase many more times that Truman (although they may not have made it the centerpiece of their desks). The counts:

  • JFK: 6 times
  • LBJ: 2 times
  • Nixon: 3 times
  • Ford: 3 times
  • Carter: 3 times
  • Reagan: 7 times
  • Bush41: 1 time
  • Clinton: 6 times
  • Bush43: 4 times
  • During the Gore-Bush debate in Boston, Bush argued:

    I felt like there needed to be a better sense of responsibility of what was going on in the White House. I believe that — I believe they’ve moved that sign, “The buck stops here” from the Oval Office desk to “The buck stops here” on the Lincoln bedroom. It’s not good for the country and it’s not right. We need to have a new look about how we conduct ourselves in office. There’s a huge trust. I see it all the time when people come up to me and say, I don’t want you to let me down again. And we can do better than the past administration has done. It’s time for a fresh start. It’s time for a new look. It’s time for a fresh start after a season of cynicism.

    By the way, it’s never been a catchphrase among academic administrators.

    4 Responses to The Buck Stops Here

    1. When Bush II says the buck stops here, is he in someone else’s office or his own… I struggle to find example of him taking responsibility, particularly in the sense that Truman used it.

    2. Yates says that perhaps Bush has a nice career ahead of him as an academic administrator.

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