Monday, March 30, 2020

What is the origin of the phrase "The buck stops here."

"You know, it's easy 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."

- Harry S Truman, 33rd President of the United States
Address at the National War College, December 19, 1952

"The President--whoever he is--has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job."

- Harry S Truman
Farewell address to the American people, January, 1953

"I take no responsibility at all." (for the lack of available tests during the COVID-19 outbreak)

- Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States

Press Conference, March 13, 2020


The saying, "The buck stops here" did not originate with Harry Truman.  It is derived from the slang expression "pass the buck" which means passing the responsibility to another.  The expression "pass the buck" is said to have originated as a poker term frequently used in frontier days when knives with buckhorn handles were used as markers counters to indicate whose turn it was to deal.  If a player did not wish to deal, he could "pass the buck" (the responsibility of being dealer) to the next player.

So, how exactly did the phrase "the buck stops here" become associated with Harry Truman?  Well, the sign on Truman's desk was made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma.  In 1945, Fred A. Canfil, then United States Marshall for the Western District of Missouri, paid a visit to the El Reno prison.  Canfil was a longtime friend of Truman's.  The two men were both from Missouri and had known each other since Truman was a Missouri judge.

When Canfil noticed the sign on the warden's desk, he thought it would appeal to the plain-speaking, no-nonsense president.  He asked the warden if he could arrange for a similar sign to be sent to Harry Truman.  The painted glass sign was made and mailed to the president in October of 1945.  It was approximately 2 1/2" x 13" and mounted on walnut base.  On the reverse side of the sign, the words "I'm from Missouri," were inscribed (Harry Truman's home state is known as "The Show Me State" and its people from Missouri have a reputation for being skeptical).

The sign ended up on Harry Truman's desk and he adopted "the busk stops here" as his personal motto.  It was kept on his desk on and off throughout his presidency to indicate that he didn't "pass the buck" to anyone and that he accepted personal responsibility for how the country was governed.  Truman's  sign has been on display at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum and Library in Independence, Missouri since 1957.

Harry Truman and Donald Trump are certainly a study in contrasts.  The first was a folksy plain-speaking man from Missouri, a drug store clerk who became a judge and later a United States senator.  The other is a flamboyant real estate mogul from New York who became a television reality show host.  Harry Truman's first pay at the old Clinton Drug Store on the Independence Square consisted of three big silver dollars.  He never dreamed he'd be earning $100,000 a year as President of the United States someday  According to a wealth of tax, loan and corporation documents that came into the possession of The New York Times, Donald Trump, the son of a wealthy real estate dealer, Fred Trump, was a millionaire by the age of eight.  The Times branded the elder Trump's years of tax avoidance as "dubious" and in some circumstances, "outright fraud."

I could continue listing the difference between the two men, but there isn't enough space.  The only thing they seem to have in common is that their last names begin with the letter "T."  The current American president, Donald Trump is the biggest buck passer in the U.S.A.  Trump has a completely different approach toward accepting responsibility than Truman.  He shirks it at every turn.  He refuses to acknowledge his mistakes and he refuses to apologize for them.  He thinks that that's a sign of weakness.  It's always the fault of the press ("the enemy of the people) or the dastardly Democrats or "crooked" Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.  

On March 13, 2020, Trump held a press conference in the White House Rose Garden.  A reporter ashed him if he took responsibility for the failure of the government he leads  to act sooner and provide more tests during the COVID-19 outbreak.  In typical Trump fashion, the president attempted to blame the Obama administration for his government's shortcomings.  He claimed that Obama's red tape had prevented the Centers for Disease Conrol from dealing with the emergency.  The previous administration, however, has been out of office for over three years.  If there was red tape, why didn't Trump cut through it weeks ago when health officials first sounded the alarm?  True to form, Trump's reply to the the reporter was "No, I don't take responsibility at all."

No leader is perfect, including the 33rd President of the United States - but mister, we could use a man like Harry Truman again - or at least an American president who accepts responsibility.

- Joanne

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