By T.L. Caswell
Truthdig has a stable of first-class columnists, and one of them is Ruth Marcus, who became a regular on the website last year. To say that her résumé is good is like saying Kobe Bryant is a good basketball player: Marcus is a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law; was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2007; is an editorial writer for The Washington Post; and writes a weekly column that appears in that esteemed publication as well as in other print outlets and on Internet sites including Truthdig.
As an editor for Truthdig, I have happily read most of her recent work, including her June 3 column. In that essay she makes a number of insightful points centering on the idea that it’s foolish for the media and the White House to resort to “theater criticism” in appraising President Barack Obama’s handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. As usual, I found myself in agreement with her as I worked my way through the article. But then I was stopped by a passage. And later, by another.
It’s a necessary, if somewhat silly, part of the job to have, as quickly as possible, the Official Presidential Visit to the disaster site, with the chief executive looking appropriately grim. [Italics mine.]
The White House, I fear, is taking the wrong lesson from the barrage of criticism. They are rushing Obama back to the Gulf for another visit Friday [June 4]. To what end? Because the president’s presence will help anyone in the Gulf—or because it will help the president? The real test is in the doing, not the showy symbolism.
Those lines lingered with me, and the more I turned them over in my mind the more I found myself agreeing heartily with parts of the sentences but disagreeing with other parts of the same sentences.
Marcus is one of many commentators weighing in on a tragedy that came after a tragedy: First 11 men died in an offshore oil rig explosion and then crude spread throughout vast areas of the Gulf and onto some Louisiana beaches and marshes. Last week’s column rightly argues that it’s not important whether Obama’s jaw tightens in anger when he speaks of the oil spill; rather, she writes, what’s important is to find out how the accident happened, whether government failure was involved, how a recurrence can be avoided, and how the flow of oil can be stemmed.
I’m distressed by what is happening along the coast of the state in which I grew up. This is the fifth heavy blow that Louisiana has taken since August of 2005—hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, and now this.
I spent the first part of my life in a tiny town in southwest Louisiana about 25 miles northwest of Holly Beach and Cameron, coastal communities on the so-called Cajun Riviera. Like almost everyone else in the area I was deeply aware of the importance of the Gulf waters and the coastal wetlands to the local economy and culture. I was also aware of the importance of oil drilling. In my boyhood years in the South, there was little controversy over whether oil exploration was the right thing to do, and in some sections of southern Louisiana the argument over the question of drilling has yet to gain much traction.
Both of my grandfathers, like so many men of the middle or lower class, worked at times in the “oil patch.” It was hard work, dirty and dangerous. I recall the funeral of a classmate who died days after his oil-soaked overalls ignited, and another schoolmate’s tale of falling from a derrick. Danger aside, the jobs were welcome and eagerly sought by workers; oil was king years ago in those parts, and it is king now, for better or worse. The pay on the rigs can be good, especially for those who work offshore. Roughnecks, roustabouts and others spend long periods out in the Gulf, where there are few opportunities to spend the money they are earning; many of them are packing hefty paychecks when they set foot on land again.
The Deepwater Horizon accident and its aftermath have been an emotional whipsaw for south Louisiana, churning it with conflicting forces. The oil industry—drilling, refineries and related operations—is an essential economic engine for the area, but that industry has now spawned unimaginable pollution that threatens to destroy beaches, marshes, sport fishing, commercial fishing, shrimping, oyster harvests, pleasure boating, tourism and other activities and businesses. Many of those who depend on oil for their livelihoods feel as though the hand that has long fed them, and will do so in the future, is now brutalizing them.
The damage to Louisiana’s morale has been evident in my phone calls from Los Angeles to friends and relatives and in my reading of news accounts filed by the hundreds of reporters now prowling the state’s shoreline. Most of the residents there did not see what was to come when the first word of the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon was broadcast. After all, folks in oil drilling and refining areas tend to have a fatalistic acceptance of the fact that there will occasionally be explosions and fires and loss of life. But within days, after the rig sank, it was clear that this was not a run-of-the-mill oil field accident.
It was almost two weeks before President Obama visited Louisiana to see the effects of the spill firsthand. When he arrived May 2, the White House already was being accused of being slow to respond. Already the specter of George W. Bush’s tardiness in the Katrina disaster was shadowing his successor. Already there was talk of “Obama’s Katrina.”
The New York Times reported that day: “Mr. Obama had initially not planned to visit the region until later this week at the earliest, White House officials said Friday afternoon. But by late Friday night, with criticism mounting that the government’s response was too slow, White House officials decided that the president needed to make the trip to the gulf on Sunday [May 2].”
Speaking in Venice, in southeast Louisiana, Obama called the spill a “potentially unprecedented environmental disaster” and went on to say, “It could jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of Americans who call this place home.”
Near the end of the month, on May 28, the president was back on the Gulf Coast in what The Washington Post called “part of a concerted White House effort to push back against critics who have called the administration’s response lacking.”
“I’m here to tell you that you are not alone, you will not be abandoned, you will not be left behind,” Obama said to the residents of the region.
Late last week the president made his third trip in response to the spreading oil that some experts warn could reach the Eastern Seaboard. The Voice of America reported that he blasted lease operator BP by saying: “They have got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf for the damage that has been done and what I don’t want to hear is when they are spending that kind of money on their shareholders, and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they are nickle and diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time.”
The report quoted a Grand Isle woman as saying: “I think he is down here to help us. I really do.”
Are these presidential visits political theater? To be sure. There is little done by American presidents that does not involved public relations and political calculation. Politicians have been self-serving creatures ever since some primitive man first supplemented force with argument to establish himself as a leader.
But presidential theater of the right kind is not without value. It is of huge worth especially in times of desperation, and especially in this cynical day. The people of the affected parts of the Gulf Coast are grieving for great losses and are in need of attention from the nation’s leader. (No reader will be faulted for seeing a paternal image here.) Under these conditions, large groups should be assured that the federal government understands their fear and shares the soreness in their hearts.
All this comes at a point when Americans are intensely suspicious and distrustful of their leaders—at the local and state levels and in every branch of the federal government. The notion is that greed rules public life, and that political leaders understand only the Language of the Buck and the whispers of those who pour money into political coffers. Divisions between the leaders and the led are deep and wide. The “little guys” feel that officialdom has scant understanding of their problems and next to no empathy. Although such a sentiment is nothing new, public disdain for government, and those who inhabit it, seems to be extraordinarily common and passionate. Fuel for negativity continues to gush from the Wall Street fiasco, the banking collapse, the mortgage and housing crisis, the Great Recession and assorted scandals great and small. The ill-informed tea party movement is but one sign of anti-government fervor.
Amid such separation, amid such public demoralization and anxiety, it is the human duty of the president to be at the scenes of major disasters, at the earliest possible time, and to communicate to ailing masses that the central government cares and is acting to help them in their moment of crisis.
I won’t get into the matter of whether Obama was late in making his first visit to the disaster area, but I will say that the May 2 trip was laudable. And that it’s good he went again May 28. And that it’s good he went still again Friday. If all these trips are symbolism, they are symbolism that reaches deep, all the way to the ties that hold us together as a people. If massive plumes of heavy oil in the Gulf cause ecological, economic and aesthetic ruin at Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and eventually the East Coast, the president should go to those places too. American cohesion demands such visits.
Of course, as Ruth Marcus says, presidential visits are not enough. Comforting words and promises must be matched with fast and strong actions. Obama must not allow BP to wriggle out of its responsibility to plug, as soon as possible, what the president has called the “damn hole” in the ocean floor. He must see that the company fulfills its promise to make whole all the areas and people damaged by this accident (not that that could ever be accomplished completely). He must ensure that the full knowledge and capabilities of the private and public spheres are brought to bear on the problem.
There are times for a president to be on the scene, looking appropriately grim and talking to scared people. Showy symbolism? Cool, as long as it’s backed by genuine interest in healing and by unrelenting resolve to act with the ample force and resources of the government.
The drama in the Gulf threatens to have a long run, Mr. Obama. Quickly go wherever this calamity calls you. Strive to truly understand the public’s plight and then speak freely of that understanding. Be unstinting in delivering help. And don’t forget that many of the presidents who left the brightest legacies won their special places in history by serving both the physical and psychological needs of their people.
T.L. Caswell was on the editing staff of the Los Angeles Times for more than 25 years and now edits and writes for Truthdig.
White House / Chuck Kennedy
President Barack Obama and Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph, left, inspect a tar ball as they look at the effect the BP oil spill is having on Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La.