- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2010


In the opening hours and days of an unanticipated event - such as the current offshore oil leak, usually not much can be learned reliably about the details of the intruding event - but much can be learned reliably about the humans responding to it. For example, on April 29, the ninth day of the crisis and the first day that the White House - in the person of the president - publicly responded to the growing mess - key players made revealing comments. We don’t yet know whether the administration is culpable of the charge that it was asleep at the switch for a week - as the New York Times already has charged editorially (just as President George W. Bush was seen to be in the first two or three days of the Hurricane Katrina crisis.)

But it was clear by April 29 that the administration was sensitive to that political danger and was starting to point accusatory fingers at BP. ABC news reported:

“Asked about the relationship between the U.S. government and BP, [Coast Guard Rear] Admiral [Sally] O’Hara referred to ‘the professionalism of our partner, BP’ and then corrected her use of the term ‘partner.’ ”

” ‘They are not a partner,’ said [Secretary of Homeland Security Janet] Napolitano.”

” ‘Bad choice of words,’ said Rear Adm. O’Hara, changing her description of BP to ‘a responsible party.’ ”

Note that the admiral is a career professional doubtlessly experienced with ocean currents but obviously not alert to the ever-shifting political currents in which she found herself. From a professional, problem-solving point of view, BP was a partner with the Coast Guard in trying to fix the mess.

But while Ms. Napolitano may not be able to navigate a dingy across a yacht basin, as a class-A politician, she can see which way the political currents are moving and quickly go with the flow - or even try to create a wave that changes the flow.

A few days later, on CNN’s Sunday “State of the Union” show, Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar didn’t have to be told the new political facts of life. He jumped right in with this little gem: “Our job basically is to keep the boot on the neck of BP to carry out the responsibilities they have both under the law and contractually to move forward and stop this spill.”

Within three days, BP’s status had shifted from being a partner with the government to having its neck pinned to the ground by a federal government boot. As I write this column, Mr. Salazar has not yet come out to rephrase his indelicate words. But I can’t imagine that the public relations boys and girls in the White House backroom like the image of their administration placing its boot on anyone’s neck. (At least I hope they don’t like that image.) The image of governmental boots have an unfortunate history.

The most famous image is, of course, George Orwell’s:

“But always - do not forget this, Winston - always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling forever on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.” (“1984,” Part III, Chapter III).

Poor Mr. Salazar. He tried a little too hard to be a good political soldier. I have met him a couple of times, and he seems like a decent, pleasant soul. But my guess is that his “boot on the neck” line will be the only words that history will recall from the gentleman.

More significantly, these opening days of the oil-leak crisis reveal the temperament of the adminstration - which is to publicly brutalize the company that, whether the administrations likes it or not, it is going to have to work with to mitigate the environmental harm.

Doubtlessly, there will be blame enough to go around when all the facts are known. But what we already have learned is that the adminstration is willing to undermine a needed, good working relationship between itself and BP as a price worth paying to try to gain an early political advantage.

Given the magnitude of the potential environmental and economic harm to the country, that judgment by the adminstration would seem to be neither noble nor wise.

Tony Blankley is the author of “American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century” (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.

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