The French have a phrase, “He missed an excellent opportunity to keep his mouth shut.” That’s certainly true of Obama last Tuesday when he rolled out a big gun from the arsenal of White House crisis management, an Oval Office address. Excluding FDR’s radio chats of the 1930s, there’s scant evidence across the past forty years that as a venue for rallying the nation, the presidential sanctum did Obama’s predecessors as president much good. In Obama’s case many of his stoutest supporters in the press could say little in its favor. Obama would have been advised to say nothing and leave the nation to the evening’s main business, the NBA playoffs.
It was certainly the worst rally-the-nation speech by a US president I’ve ever watched, and that includes Nixon’s cornered-rat addresses of the early 1970s and – an ominous parallel — Jimmy Carter’s fireside chat on April1977, four months into his presidency, in the Oval Office promoting his plan for Energy Independence. To dramatize the need for conservation Carter wore a cardigan. He said the crusade for energy reduction was “the moral equivalent of war.” As he said these words he clenched his fist. America was not impressed, but more than they were on Tuesday.
Asked a couple of weeks ago about the president’s apparent inability to project anger, his pr man, Robert Gibbs said the president had been clenching his jaw. Better that he had continued clenching, and thus been unable to open it to unleash that windy homily, ripe with cliché, bare of specifics and without even the pummeling of BP that everyone had been looking forward to. Of course Obama said that there will be a set-aside clean-up and compensation fund financed by BP. He tossed the word “recklessness” in BP’s direction. But these were timid little puff-ball punches. There was no mailed fist within the glove, just wadded tissue paper.
Unlike wars and slumps, where a president can invoke inside knowledge proving victory or recovery are imminent, the singularity of this crisis is that there’s no inside story, no disputing the central disastrous facts except to suggest and then have confirmed that they are even worse that BP or the US government admits.
The minimum quantity of crude oil spurting out of the broken riser pipe now up around 60,000 bbd, heading towards the estimate by the Perdue scientists of around 90,000bbd, which is apparently what an internal BP memo suggested back in the immediate aftermath of the explosion on April 20.
There is absolutely no imminent prospect of this situation improving over the immediate future and a distinct possibility it could last the rest of the year and conceivably the rest of Obama’s first term – which in this eventuality will also be his last.
Since there are no immediate solutions to what Obama is now calling the worst environmental crisis in America’s history, and 71 per cent of Americans polled by Gallup over last weekend think Obama has not shown enough toughness towards BP, you would have thought that Obama would have waited to report on what in fact did happen the very next day – the announcement of BP’s $20 billion escrow fund managed by an independent administrator, plus the withholding of BP’s quarterly dividend. But no. Apparently Rahm Emanuel and the others thought it better to give vapid words a day’s lead over substantive news.
The speech left no banality unturned, from the ritual blue ribbon commission to investigate why the April 20 disaster took place, to the pledge of a shake-up in federal agencies that had previously been gofers for the oil industry, to the final empty personal guarantee that cleanup efforts will restore the Gulf not just to where it was before this accident happened but to where it was years ago.
Every president since Nixon has tried to sell an energy plan. Carter wore his cardigan and America laughed and turned up the heaters in their SUVs. The only one to yield any tangible results was Reagan’s consummated pledge to rip the Carter-installed solar system off the roof of the White House.
Obama mumbled about windmills and solar panels and renewable energy and ending America’s dependence on fossil fuels. He barely touched on his energy bill, becalmed in the Congress because Senate leader Harry Reid has told him it will never pass. He didn’t even allude to his actual energy plan which is to accelerate deep-sea drilling (on hold till the blue ribbon commission gives the green light, which it will), issue federal insurance guarantees for a new generation of nuclear plants, sponsor “clean coal” and bail out the ethanol industry.
Nuclear power could make the BP catastrophe look like chickenfeed. So-called “clean, low-sulfur coal”, mined by mountain-top removal, is an environmental disaster. The ethanol industry has long been a big financial backer of Obama and is now in crisis because of over-production of corn, from which the ethanol is distilled. At the moment the federal government limits the amount of ethanol than can be sold at the pump to 10 per cent of every gallon. Obama may raise the percentage to 15 per cent. The US now has about 250 million motor vehicles. As Robert Bryce has pointed out on this site, of that number, “only about 7.5 million are designed to burn gasoline containing more than 10 percent ethanol. And there is evidence that even that much ethanol may be too much. Last year, Toyota recalled more than 200,00 Lexus vehicles due to internal component corrosion that was caused by ethanol-blended fuel.”
Obama could not only lose the important Lexus-owner vote, but also earn the undying hatred of every American with a mowing machine, a snowblower, or a leafblower. 15 per cent ethanol in the gas means they may not be able to fire up these devices. That’s a hefty chunk of the electorate. You lose the lawn-mower vote, you lose the suburbs.
Obama’s terrible speech showed that even now the White House hasn’t managed to get any productive hold on the disaster turning the Gulf of Mexico into a sludge pond. Obama doesn’t get it. Rahm Emanuel doesn’t get it. The speech writers don’t get it. At the end of his speech Obama turned to God and told Americans to pray. Here’s a meeting of minds with BP, since the oil company says the blowout was an act of God.
Even God won’t be able to bail out Obama if he goes on like this.
Remembering Bill Christison
I met Bill Christison and his wife Kathy, both of them former CIA officers, on the high seas off Mazatlan on a Nation cruise in December of 2001. Bill had been pretty high up in the Agency and at one point had been the official charged with discharging national threat assessments and the like into the armor-plated cerebellum of President Gerald Ford.
Bill, a Princeton grad, had joined the CIA in 1950, and served on the analysis side of the Agency for 28 years. From the early 1970s he served as National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser to the Director of Central Intelligence on certain areas) for, at various times, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. Before he retired in 1979 he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit. He’d met Kathy when they were both doing tours in Saigon.
After leaving the Agency they settled in Santa Fe and began their journey to the left, an itinerary on which they were well advanced by the time I met up with them and invited them to write for CounterPunch.
We published Bill’s first big piece on March 4, 2002, under the title “Former Senior CIA Officer: Why the War on Terror Won’t Work.” The piece, which created quite a stir, listed six root causes of terrorism, beginning,
“My number one root cause is the support by the U.S. over recent years for the policies of Israel with respect to the Palestinians, and the belief among Arabs and Muslims that the United States is as much to blame as Israel itself for the continuing, almost 35-year-long Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
My number two root cause is the present drive of the United States to spread its hegemony and its version of big-corporation, free enterprise globalization around the world. …. The gap between rich and poor nations, and rich and poor people within most of the nations, has grown wider during the last 20 years of globalization or, more precisely, the U.S. version of globalization.
Bill’s other prime causes of terrorism included the sanctions on Iraq and daily bombings; the continued presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia and the indiscriminate use of air power, with “missiles launched from a great distance, and now even on drone aircraft with no humans on board…But while few Americans get killed, sizable numbers of other nationalities do.”
This was just over six months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and Bill’s calm and rational analysis was a huge relief and inspiration for many, after week upon week of ideological saturation bombing in the main stream press. He followed it up a couple of months later with a series on what a rational US foreign policy would look like. He and his wife Kathy, whose chief topic has been Palestine, became important and popular contributors to CounterPunch.
Bill was heading into his late 70s by now, but he was as frisky as a 20-year old as he and Kathy kept up a fierce schedule of talks in the south west and across the US, along with trips to the Middle East, often in somewhat grueling and even perilous circumstances.
He got more radical with each advancing year and chafed sometimes when Jeffrey and I expressed reservations about some of his strategies for direct action.
Kathy told us a few weeks ago that Bill had fallen victim to a rapidly advancing neurological condition – and on Sunday, June 13, he died in Santa Fe at the age of 81. He was a noble soul and used his later years with an idealism and energy that we should all envy and hope to emulate.
A Deadly 9/11 Cover-Up
In our latest newsletter, hot off the press – What do the W.R. Grace Company, the Trade Towers, Libby Montana and asbestos have in common? Andrea Peacock weaves the fatal threads together in a brilliant investigation. The terrible bottom line:
“If asbestos-related diseases begin showing up in rescue workers and others exposed at Ground Zero in the next few years, there’s little doctors can do about it. There’s medication to ease the symptoms of asbestosis – in which scar tissue caused by asbestos fibers gradually suffocates victims – but no cure. Those with lung disease can forestall the inevitable decline by taking care of themselves: quit smoking, get plenty of exercise to keep their lung capacity as high as possible. It could take another 30 years for mesothelioma cases to manifest – an asbestos-related lung cancer that kills fast once it hits. The full legacy of that day, for which W.R. Grace now bears some responsibility, will be unfolding for decades.“
Also in this powerful edition: After a mine disaster in western Siberia Russian workers rise up. Boris Kagarlitsky describes the social explosion. Jeffrey Blankfort reviews Quicksand, the book the Israel lobby doesn’t want you to read.
I urge you to subscribe now!
ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.