Stopping the buck

PRESIDENT REAGAN will attempt, in an address Wednesday, to face up to the disclosures from the Iran-contra hearings. He is expected to acknowledge, without quibble over details, that this and that went wrong, to plead no contest, and ask the country to get on with things. Will this be enough? The American system makes it hard to hold presidents directly accountable for failures of policy or management. In a parliamentary system, a leader can be compelled to defend his actions before the legislature, be subjected to a no-confidence vote, and made to stand again for election. Short of impeachment, US presidents find haven in the four-year term.

They are made to pay a price nonetheless. Policies are harder to sustain against an emboldened Congress. Public support fades. Their claim on history is discounted by the measure of their mistakes. For Ronald Reagan, whose career has been notable for a direct resonance with a segment of the public, trust in character is central to political strength.

The American public now finds Mr. Reagan likable but much less credible. It still has not heard from him a coherent account of the Iran-contra foul-up. His recollections have been so fuzzy and contradictory as to suggest a willful refusal to acknowledge the facts, a dissembling, or gross ignorance.

The public will be looking into his eyes. Nominal accountability won't do - saying you're responsible but not meaning it or trying to explain it away.

The administration violated its own no-deals-for-hostages rule; it sent arms to a country that has done great harm to US lives and interests. Congress was lied to, Cabinet members were double-crossed.

The readiness of Americans to ``get on with it'' will follow from ending their doubts: Has the buck finally stopped? Does the President grasp what went on? Have the right lessons been learned?

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