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Trying to turn bears into bosses

Americans aren't exactly world-famous for their willingness to take responsibility for their actions. Part of the problem is lack of leadership at the top. Presidents such as Ronald ("I Was Asleep At The Time") Reagan and Bill ("I Was Nowhere Near The Place") Clinton haven't been setting a great example for personal accountability.

Japanese political and business leaders have a tradition of offering groveling public apologies whenever their administrations make mistakes, even if they aren't directly responsible for them. And British prime ministers are forced to go before the House of Commons on a regular basis and fend off whatever insults and accusations may be thrown at them.

But when our Republican presidents get in trouble, they tend to hide behind the fog machines of smooth public relations men like David Gergen.

And when our Democratic presidents get in trouble, they tend to hide behind the fog machines of smooth public relations men like David Gergen.

So I guess it shouldn't be any surprise that ordinary Americans can go to ludicrous lengths to deny responsibility for their actions, too.

For example, I was reading a recent story about the yahoos who make a sport out of hunting the endangered Florida black bear when I came across a quote that looked familiar.

"The bear's the boss (during a hunt)," said one of the yahoos. "He can do just what he wants to. He can run. He can climb a tree. He can stay and kill every dog that comes up to him if he wants to. He is the boss when it comes to that."

Well, maybe the bear can run or climb a tree or take a slice out of one the hound dogs trying to chase him down, but he can't do "just what he wants to."

Because if the bear was really "the boss," he'd learn how to grab a gun, point the barrel in the other direction and see just how well this particular yahoo could run and climb.

I'd have more respect for this hunter if he'd just say, "I like to kill bears, and I don't care if they're endangered." Instead, he feels the need to make it sound as if the bear somehow enjoys being tracked down by mouth-breathing men in camouflage suits. He even makes it sound as if the bear choreographs the action up until the moment that it gets blown away.

Anyway, the hunter's quotes seemed familiar to me because I remembered hearing at least one of the officers in the Rodney King case use almost identical language in attempting to justify the pummeling that King received. Sgt. Stacey Koon, who was the officer in charge of that uniformed mob, testified that King "made the choice" to have the beating continue well beyond the point at which he was obviously subdued.

Those of you who saw the videotape of that gruesome beating might have thought that King was prostrate, helpless and virtually motionless while he absorbed the last couple of dozen blows that the officers inflicted on him. But that's not how Koon remembers it. According to him, King was the boss, and the officers were only following his implied orders to continue flailing away at him.

And one of those professional witnesses who make a living telling a jury whatever their clients want them to say corroborated Koon's skewed view. He said King "dictated the action" by failing to assume the proper arrestee's position after being beaten senseless.

Maybe King behaved in ways that provoked the officers early in that one-sided confrontation. But the videotape made it plain that for several sickening moments King did nothing more aggressive than make a feeble effort to protect his head and genitals from the blows that were raining down on him. To hear Koon tell it, though, King might as well have been twisting the officers' arms and forcing them to whop him in the kidneys with their billy clubs.

Talk about blaming the victim! According to the yahoo hunters and predator cops, black bears and black men aren't just asking for it _ they're demanding it.

That's the kind of self-serving dishonesty we have come to expect from people in the news, though. Presidents are no longer willing to let the buck land in their laps. Megalomaniacal characters like Ross Perot are no longer willing to admit that they are driven by their own huge egos and ambitions rather than the popular will. Ridiculously overpaid business executives are no longer willing to admit that they're more interested in making money than in being nurturing employers or "good corporate citizens."

And bear hunters are only following orders.

No wonder we're trying to turn bears into bosses. Nobody else is willing to take the job.

Robert Friedman is deputy editor of editorials of the Times.