In the old West, when the boys played poker at the saloon, or wherever, along with the cards, chips, money, and various beverages, the table was also adorned with a knife–one with a buckhorn handle. The knife was moved from place to place, depending on the person dealing. If a player didn’t feel like dealing the cards, he could pass the responsibility to the next guy, along with the knife.
It was called “passing the buck.”
The phrase is, of course, most commonly associated with President Harry Truman–in fact, his desk on display at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, has a famous sign bearing the words: “The Buck Stops Here.” One of his aides, Fred Canfil, had seen the phrase on a desk in El Reno, Oklahoma, and had the sign made for his boss. Interestingly, and largely lost to the legend according to biographer David McCullough, the 33rd President only kept the sign on his Oval Office desk for a short time while in the White House.
But the metaphor stuck. It has been used by leaders–particularly presidents–ever since as the ultimate way of saying: “I’m in charge, it’s my responsibility.” Most recently, the phrase was brought out of White House mothballs and used by President Barack Obama in remarks about the Christmas Day 2009 foiled Islamist terrorist attack.
It remains to be seen whether or not the latest pronouncement about the proverbial buck will be remembered as Truman-esque, or more like the nervous stammer of Alexander Haig the day President Reagan was shot. I believe the President said the right things the other day–but will he and his administration really follow through, taking steps, making the tough calls, and keeping the issue of Islamist terror on their political radar screen?
A good indicator would be the willingness to call it what it is. We are not just fighting Al Qaeda as some kind of generic syndicate of bad guys, as with The Man From Uncle and “THRUSH” or Maxwell Smart’s “KAOS.” There is no way for us to win over an ideology, while being afraid or hesitant to call it what it is: Islamism.