On a Monday night conference call with journalists from around the country to discuss his state-of-emergency declaration in Ferguson, Gov. Jay Nixon was asked: “Does the buck ultimately stop with you?”
He answered, in part:
“We’re, um, you know, it uh, it uh, you know, our goal here is to, is to, you know, keep the peace and allow folks’ voices to, uh, uh, to be heard. Um, and in that balance, I’m attempting, you know I am, using the resources we have to marshal to be predictable, uh, for both those pillars. I, I don’t, I’m more … I, I have to say I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time personalizing this vis-a-vis me.”
He continued: “I’m trying to make sure that, uh, um, that, that we move forward in a predictable, peaceful manner that plans for all contingencies that might occur so that people of a disparate group of opinions and actions can, can be heard while at the same time the property and, and persons, personal, persons of people in the St. Louis region are protected. So, that, I mean, uh, I’d, I’d prefer not to be a commentator on it.”
Harry Truman, it wasn’t.
By Tuesday morning, the national (and global) media verdict was in, and it was about as welcoming as a canister of tear gas.
“Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon Stumbles on Ferguson Responsibility Question,” declared a headline on ABC News’ national website.
“Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon Won’t Say Whether The Buck Stops With Him In Ferguson Protests,” said the Huffington Post.
“Ferguson: governor ducks taking responsibility for policing protests,” said The Guardian.
And from the international news site Russia Today: “Missouri governor unable to explain who’s in charge in Ferguson.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Nixon’s failure to explicitly declare himself in charge of his own emergency declaration had become a prominent enough story that it was among the first things national reporters hit him with during a packed follow-up news conference in St. Louis on Tuesday afternoon.
This time, he appeared to be ready. “You’re governor,” he said. “The buck always stops with me. But it’s important to note it’s a team effort.”
He added: “Immediately after signing an executive order calling up the assets of the state, quite frankly, I thought it was relatively obvious, the answer there.”
It wasn’t the first time Nixon’s tendency to hem and haw around a question has complicated his effort to keep the peace in Ferguson. During the August unrest there, his shifting strategies and sometimes confusing explanations drew criticism from around the country, at times seemingly angering both sides of the conflict.
Many have argued that Ferguson is a microcosm of a slew of national issues such as race, economic opportunity and police-community relations. In that sense, argued political scientist Ken Warren of St. Louis University, a little modesty about where the buck stops was appropriate on Nixon’s part.
“Obviously, as governor, he’s the highest elected official in the state, so the buck obviously stops with him,” said Warren. “But in a sense, the issue is larger than he is. It’s larger than Missouri. The larger issue obviously doesn’t stop with him.”