Who’s running the ship?

IRS official Lois Lerner is sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 22, 2013, before the House Oversight Committee hearing to investigate the extra scrutiny IRS gave to Tea Party and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. Lerner told the committee she did nothing wrong and then invoked her constitutional right to not answer lawmakers' questions.

Carolyn Kaster

“In each ship there is one man who, in the hour of emergency or peril at sea, can turn to no other man. There is one who alone is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation, engineering performance, accurate gunfire, and morale of his ship. He is the Commanding Officer. He is the ship.”

— Joseph Conrad, “The Prestige, Privilege and the Burden of Command”

An Associated Press story in our Monday paper surely caught the eye of many old sailors.

“More aides knew of IRS audit, but Obama not told,” the headline on the story proclaimed.

If a Navy executive officer or a department head, knowing something potentially damaging to the ship, deliberately withheld knowledge of it from his captain, that subordinate officer would have been summarily relieved on the spot and most likely drummed out of the service.

That is the way any well-managed organization, even one at the highest level like the government of the United States of America, should react in like circumstances. “Protecting the boss” is not a valid excuse. More often than not it is motivated by an ignoble urge to protect one’s own nether extremity.

There has been an extraordinary effort within the Obama administration to shield the president from any responsibility for things going awry. When the president says, responding to a question from a slowly and painfully awakening White House press corps, that he learned about an internal investigation of the current IRS scandal from “news reports,” heads should roll.

White House spokesman Jay Carney’s assertion that “some matters are not appropriate to convey to [Obama], and this is one of them,” is as astonishing as it is damning.

“It is absolutely a cardinal rule as we see it,” Mr. Carney added, “that we do not intervene in ongoing investigations.”

In other words, we keep the president out of the loop to shield him from what should be inescapable responsibility. What a way to run a kindergarten, much less the highest office in the land.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday Lois Lerner, director of the IRS unit that handles applications for tax exemptions, told a House oversight committee she is proud of the job she had done with the agency. But that was about all she was willing to say.

Instead, she “took the Fifth” (Amendment) rather than answer the committee’s questions about the agency’s targeting of conservative organizations.

Rep. Stephen Lynch — a Massachusetts Democrat — rightly warned her and other IRS and Treasury Department witnesses about the probable result of such stonewalling:

“We know where that will lead, it will lead to a special prosecutor. ... There will be hell to pay if that’s the route that we choose to go down.”

Indeed, if it takes a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the IRS scandal, the sooner one is appointed the better.

Back to the president:

In the wonderful Kander and Ebb musical “Chicago,” there is a Joel Gray character who calls himself “Mr. Cellophane.”

Nobody notices him or even sees that he is there. Like cellophane, everyone looks right through him.

Has no one in the White House, not even one of the many “czars” appointed to oversee things, not noticed how near the president they serve is to becoming our own Mr. Cellophane?

Or that day by day how more and more are beginning to look right through him?

So maybe this is, as the president has proclaimed, “the most transparent administration in history.”

But it’s no way to run the ship of state.