Thursday, May 27, 2010

President Steps Up Minus a Harry Truman Moment

In his presser today President Obama sought to allay the growing criticism that the Administration’s response to the disaster unfolding in the Gulf is inadequate, insisting he, not BP, is in charge. We’re not entirely convinced. The measures announced by the President are necessary but prospective and do not address the immediate crisis. The best thing that could happen at this point is for the “Top Kill” maneuver that is underway to force drilling mud into that hole is successful in plugging it.

If not, all bets are off, and the Administration will have to take complete ownership of this catastrophe and move BP aside. Fingers crossed, for the sake of economically devastated residents and our ravaged ecology. Then we can move on to phase II –- the cleanup of this mess –- which should have been concurrent and with resources equal to the enormity of the task. Clearly, this has not been happening.

BP must be held accountable for the deaths of its workers, to “make things right, if they have a heart,” as a grieving father implored. Instead they are feverishly moving on the legal front to limit their losses and liability. This will not do, Mr. President. The Justice Department must start investigating this as a criminal matter. When you visit the region blighted by BP tomorrow, Mr. President, you need to look Louisiana native James Carville in the eye and the thousands of Gulf state residents who are as angry and frustrated as he is, and assure them you’re taking charge of this catastrophe on their behalf:

President Obama, these are the questions and issues that need immediate redress:

1. Where are those supertankers that were so effective in cleaning up an oil spill in the Gulf of Arabia in 1993? The question was asked at the presser, and not answered. Experts, including the former CEO of Exxon, have affirmed the effectiveness of this response.

From the moment this disaster was no longer a search and recovery operation, the federal government should have deployed supertankers to patrol the entire width and breadth of the spill -- as those NOAA maps showed in slow-mo GLOB growth moving inexorably toward our precious wetlands -- sucking up the surface muck, treating and disposing of it, and returning to the fray. At this point in time, the area covering the spill should look like the English Channel on D-Day: ships as far as the eye could see; only this time, they’d not be warships but supertankers dredging the surface of oil. This should be an operation led by the U.S. Navy.

It hasn’t happened. Why? WHY?

2. BP must be made to cease using Corexit immediately. It is a known toxin, banned in the UK, and to subordinate its use to commercial and proprietary reasons is entirely inappropriate and unacceptable when people’s health is at stake. This is not an abstract legal issue, Sir -- as we speak, cleanup workers hired by BP are getting sick with headaches, breathing difficulties, nervous system disorders, and a number of them have been hospitalized. Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York worried that we might have another 9/11 air quality issue at hand, when the EPA made false assurances that the air quality was non-toxic for recovery workers. Today, this repeats itself, aggravated by the fact that BP has sent these contract cleanup workers out without protective gear or respirators. And they are getting sick. As James Carville said, BP “does not wish us well.”

With all due respect, Mr. President, the EPA has been MIA. Director Jackson’s failing leadership is unacceptable. We need someone in charge of the agency who reflects the passion, commitment, and toughness in defense of our environment of Robert Kennedy Jr. My suggestion, Mr. President, is that you ask Mr. Kennedy to step in either as EPA Director or as Special Adviser to the President on the BP oil disaster. I’m certain he’d accept a call to duty. Environmentalists would rest much easier knowing Mr. Kennedy is advising you. And the polluters, including BP and Massey, would be quacking in their boots.

3. Mr. President, you should outright wrest control of the coastal and beach head response from BP. The numbers of personnel cited are clearly inadequate to the task, and BP’s effort here reflects its history of negligence and disdain for the environment. This is directly linked to issue #2, but the resources to hold the despoiling of our beaches and coastal environment have been woefully inadequate.

We need a military response to this crisis and an all-hands-on-deck commitment. People are ready to go to work to clean up their environment. The only thing lacking is leadership.

When Harry Truman nationalized the steel industry on national security grounds to end a strike that was crippling the Korean War effort, he said “these are not normal times.” The union had accepted his administration’s wage increase proposal, a compromise which the steel barons rejected out of hand. So Truman acted, announcing to the nation he was seizing the steel mills. “The President has the power to keep the country from going to hell,” he told his staff.

The steel industry sued and the case moved swiftly to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the President. Given this setback, Truman did not sit pat. He summoned the steelmakers and union to the White House. To the industry leader he said: “You can settle this thing, and you've got to settle it. I want it settled by tomorrow morning, or I will have some things to say that you won't like to hear, and I will have to do some things you won't like.”

The strike was settled. When the national interest was imperiled, Truman acted decisively without regard for legalisms or political fallout, so long as he believed he had the Constitutional authority. There is a lesson in this for President Obama. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander recognized Obama’s authority to “take over” BP if that became necessary.

Truman wouldn’t have hesitated on this question; and perhaps a government takeover of BP won’t become necessary after all. But it sure would be refreshing if President Obama summoned BP CEO Tony Hayward to the White House and gave him a Trumanesque presidential dressing-down. He’s got the script from the president who never trusted the corporations and never betrayed the people’s trust: Either this thing is “settled … [or] I will have to do some things you won't like.”

Take a page from “give ‘em Hell, Harry,” Mr. President. America needs a Truman moment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post! I think the president heard. I hope so. As you say, this needs leadership, now, and constant, attentive action, and assurances of recourse and protection.