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Buckpassing the 16 words

How does a president act when things go wrong and responsibility has to be assigned? Like President Reagan, who used the passive "mistakes were made" to explain the Iran-contra affair? Or like the few presidents I can remember in my lifetime who refused to shift responsibility?

In 1960, President Eisenhower was advised by some, including his own brother, Milton, to blame the CIA for the U-2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union, its pilot captured. As described in Michael Beschloss's book "May Day," the president barked at his brother that if he blamed a subordinate, he'd have to fire him, and that would be hypocrisy. Eisenhower took full responsibility for the incident and refused to apologize for it, causing Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to storm out of the Paris summit.

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President Truman had that famous sign on hisdesk, "The buck stops here." And, in his farewell address in January 1953, he said, "The President - whoever he is - has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody."

In 1961, President Kennedy was advised by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, among others, to blame the CIA for the debacle of the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion. According to his White House aide Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy refused and had the White House issue a statement saying, "President Kennedy has stated from the beginning that as president he bears sole responsibility" and opposes any attempt to shift that responsibility.

That was also the time Kennedy said, "Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan."

Now President Bush faces an unexpected firestorm set off by the now- famous 16 words in his State of the Union address last January: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Mr. Bush, peppered with questions on his African trip, said tersely, "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services." And he left it to others to explain more fully. CIA Director George Tenet loyally stated, "The CIA approved the president's State of the Union address before it was delivered." The CIA, mind you, not necessarily the director.

It appears that "mistakes were made."

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.