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Analysis: For Public Officials, the Blame Comes With the Fame

Somebody in public life does something stupid, or just controversial. Do you blame a staffer — a little person down in the basement — or do blame the officeholder who hired them? It really doesn't matter.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on Jan. 13, 2015.

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“You are what you eat” might apply to all of us, but there is a special version for public officials: “You are who you hire.”

Anybody know the name of the people who programmed Volkswagen diesels to cheat on U.S. emissions tests? That might be a big deal inside the company, but out here in the world, it reflects on the brand name.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has been providing a steady diet of examples of this since he took office in January, sometimes at his own hand and sometimes because an aide got loose. Either way, the examples all have Miller's name on them. 

The latest was a social media post about Syrian refugees. His contribution to the public debate: A picture of a writhing rhumba of rattlesnakes (that really is what you call a big group of diamondbacks) next to a picture of a crowd of Syrian refugees. “Can you tell me which of these rattlers won't bite you?” Miller — and in this case, it turns out that it was Miller himself  — said in the caption to his Facebook post. “Sure some of them won't, but tell me which ones so we can bring them into the house.”

This is the same Sid Miller who suffered some embarrassing attention this year for repeating on his campaign Facebook page what someone else had posted. It featured a picture of an atomic bomb explosion with this text: “Japan has been at peace with the US since August 9, 1945” and “It’s time we made peace with the Muslim world.” 

Miller was out of the country when that social media explosion went off, and his political consultant, Todd Smith, said a staffer had posted it. They pulled it down, and Smith was unrepentant. “We’re not going to apologize for the posts that show up on our Facebook page,” he said, telling the Tribune that a dozen-and-a-half people had access to Miller’s Facebook account. “I don’t know who did it, but I’m not going to start a witch hunt to find out who did.” 

That’s good news for the minions, because it meant the boss took all of the blame instead of throwing one of them under the campaign bus.

This has always been true. A staffer — a little person down in the basement or a big one up near the penthouse — does something stupid. Do you blame them, or do you blame the boneheaded officeholder who hired them?

What you do is blame the person whose name is on the sign.

Donald Trump has created the impression that he and only he is behind the provocative posts on the @realdonaldtrump Twitter account. To a remarkable extent in politics (or in business), he has taken the heat when others would be slapping their foreheads, hiding under their desks or tossing staffers into the fire.

But last month, this retweet got loose: “#BenCarson is now leading in the #polls in #Iowa. Too much #Monsanto in the #corn creates issues in the brain? #Trump #GOP”. A few hours later, Trump — or someone who works for him — popped this one out: “The young intern who accidentally did a Retweet apologizes.”

It doesn’t matter, except to that poor intern. Trump took the blame, and Trump had to eat the crow. That’s the way of these things. It often does not matter who fouled up — the brand name takes the hit.

Some politicians, like Miller and Trump, seem willing to take their lumps in return for remaining in the public eye. They enjoy the attention, and seem to think it works for them. Miller did get himself elected to a statewide office last year, two years after losing a re-election bid for his seat in the Texas House. And Trump is leading in a number of polls; he’s even tied in Texas with native son Ted Cruz in the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Who can resist lines like Miller’s response to criticism about his proposal to raise a wide range of agricultural user and licensing fees: “I’ll put on my rawhide underwear and take all the chewings.”

That one came straight from the boss and not from an aide paid to eat the officeholder’s mistakes.

Not that it would matter. Even the ancients knew the boss always gets the blame. They had a proverb: “The fish rots from the head.”

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