The little black dress of 'responsibility'

IN CASE YOU haven't heard, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa takes full responsibility for his relationship with Telemundo newscaster Mirthala Salinas. Not some responsibility, not partial responsibility, not indirect responsibility. Full.

His exact words: "It is true that I have a relationship with Ms. Mirthala Salinas. As I've said, I take full responsibility for my actionsÂ…. "

Which actions does he mean, exactly? Is he talking only about cheating on his wife? Or is he referring to actions specific to his relationship with Salinas? Is a marriage, or any relationship, an action? Can one person take full responsibility for a relationship involving another consenting adult? Is it possible to achieve such interpersonal unilateralism without tying somebody up?

A person can, of course, be "accountable," "chiefly responsible" or (here's an idea) "the one to blame" when something bad happens. But somehow, "I take full responsibility," with its presumptuous bombast and its inherent oversimplification of the issue at hand, has become the preferred sentence of apologists everywhere.

"I take full responsibility" sounds arrogant, but also suggests that words are being uttered under duress. It conjures the image of a teenager who's father has marched him to the neighbor's house to confess that he broke their window. Maybe that's why the unfortunate rumors that Salinas might be pregnant (she's not) gave the whole saga the air of an "ABC After-School Special." In that teen-and-trouble genre, "I take full responsibility" is code for, "I knocked her up and boy is her dad (and my wife) gonna be upset."

The "full responsibility" phrase has been uttered with such astonishing frequency by people who mean precisely its opposite that it's become conversational filler, a throat-clearing noise so inconsequential that most listeners forget that they heard it as quickly as the speaker forgets that he said it.

Consider these events of relatively recent history. Can you guess which ones were accompanied by the "I take full responsibility" mantra?

a) President Bush discusses the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

b) Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo admits that his wife drove and damaged a city-owned vehicle on a suspended license.

c) Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio is sentenced to 30 months in prison for soliciting and accepting bribes from corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

d) Paul Wolfowitz talks to the World Bank staff about how he secured job promotions and raises for his longtime girlfriend.

e) A St. Louis computer consultant admits to wearing a Navy Cross medal he did not earn.

f) Sprint car driver Shane Forte feels bad about tapping Travis Rutz's car, causing Rutz to collide with a third driver during a race in Elma, Wash.

g) Mets pitcher Dave Williams feels bad about losing to Houston last week.

h) Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman feels bad about the Yankees.

If you guessed "all of the above," you're right! In each of these cases, the subject announced that he "took full responsibility" for his ineptness, misjudgment, inappropriate words or loss in sports.

As phrases go, "I take full responsibility" is more than versatile, it's downright Renaissance. It is as comfortable 'fessing up to humanitarian disasters as taking the blame for a bad day on the ball field, like a little black dress that's perfect for every occasion.

What's its secret? "I take full responsibility" is simultaneously over the top and utterly inadequate, allowing self-aggrandizement to distract from the actual wrongdoing. By elevating mere responsibility to full responsibility, failings are transformed into bragging rights.

Worse, by so casually tossing around the term "responsibility," we undermine not only the word but the entire concept. And not even the biggest ego wants to take responsibility for that.



mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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