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PRUDEN: Playing word games to relieve the misery

- The Washington Times - Monday, July 19, 2010

Now for something entirely different: BP's gusher in the Gulf seems to be capped, with nothing but tiny oil "seeps" to foul the waters, and we can start building the gallows at last. A public hanging has always been good clean fun (unless you're the hangee). A waltz at the end of a rope can be a favorite public entertainment again.

There's no shortage of invitees to the dance. British Petroleum, or BP as British Petroleum prefers to be called, can furnish an entire cast of hangees. So can the federal government, whose bureaucrats long ago perfected the art of bungling. Even the White House, where Barack Obama fiddled with his teleprompter and his putter for 70 days before he allowed more than a few oil skimmers into the Gulf, has an abundant array of criminal incompetents. The president kept the skimmers out of the Gulf at the behest of the maritime unions, but he did shed some presidential tears for the pelicans.

The good news about the oil cap was received in Washington, and in the media, with reluctant one-handed applause. Pounding on BP was fun for one and all, all the more fun because the poundees deserved every lick upside the head and every kick in the backside. Lost in the fun, however, was the fact that only BP and the oil companies knew how to do anything about the runaway well, and the prospective hangees were the only people who would fix it. When the well was finally capped, it was hard to give up the fun. The heroes - and heroes they are - are the engineers and drillers who devised the remarkable exercise in technology and made it work. One day, when the passions of the mob cool, these heroes will be recognized for the miracle wrought by remote control at the bottom of the sea.

But when Sunday dawned and the cap seemed to be holding, as measured by the pressure in the well, a fascinating dance unfolded between BP and the Obama White House. This was an exercise best appreciated in Washington, where politics is understood to be oxygen. The test of the cap continued to show it holding; the view of the wellhead, as captured by the lens of the underwater camera was the reassurance everyone was waiting for. For the first time since April 20, when the well blew out of control, there was no oil gushing into the sea. Who wouldn't applaud that?

The president and his wise men, for one and several. The Coast Guard admiral in charge, reflecting White House wishes, wanted to reopen the cap to relieve pressure, if any, that might be lurking in the well. The sight of the oil flowing into the sea again would keep the crisis simmering, and keep the pressure on BP. The villainy of BP's senior executives, after all, has been a godsend to Mr. Obama, whose plummeting popularity suggests that a lot of people think he's the villain-in-chief. BP, naturally, was eager to exploit the first good news it had seen in weeks. On Monday, the feds "allowed" the company to keep the cap in place. Thad Allen, the admiral in charge of the operations in the Gulf, said, "it is important that all decisions are driven by the science." Driven by science, not politics. Imagine that. What won't they think of next?

The Obama administration is lately having a bad turn with "caps." Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate Democrats, is trying to "rebrand" the president's energy and climate-control legislation by eliminating the word "cap" from "cap-and-trade," which was what everybody called the scam when it passed the House in June.

When someone asked him whether the Senate version of cap-and-trade would include a "cap" on greenhouse emissions - which the global-warming fanatics imagine will boil the globe in its own juice - he replied: "I don't use that. Those words are not in my vocabulary. We're going to work on pollution."

Mr. Reid's word game reflects the Democratic strategy of trying to freshen up the label on something the Democrats know the public doesn't want, but will give the federal bureaucracy, one of the party's most reliable constituencies, more control of the economy, and hence control of the lives of ordinary Americans. The Capitol Hill newspaper Politico reports that Mr. Reid imported a learned professor of word games to Washington to brief 30 senior staffers in a class in how to mislead with marketing language. Democrats have had a certain success in persuading the media to refer to liberals, who understand how they stunk up that word, as "progressives."

So why not? But putting a cap on stink may be more difficult than capping a mere oil well.

c Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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