Slow-motion crisis in the gulf

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; 11:27 AM

Most disasters unfold quickly.

The hurricane, the earthquake, the plane crash, the mine collapse, they do their deadly damage and it's over -- leaving the rest of us to deal with the dead and wounded and figure out what went wrong.

The BP oil spill, now in its 38th day, is different. It oozes, it spreads, it mushrooms, it winds its way toward our coastline while doing untold damage beneath the Gulf of Mexico. It is seemingly immune to containment domes, pipe intrusions, junk shots and other weird-sounding measures that most of us had never heard of. And it has begun to stain the Obama administration, perhaps in an indelible way.

It's increasingly apparent that the president has mishandled the politics of the situation, which is why you've got the presser Thursday and the gulf trip Friday. But I'm not convinced that Obama could have ridden to the rescue on the leak itself.

British Petroleum is a flawed and, critics would say, reckless oil company. But could a government that has presided over the Madoff mess, the Wall Street meltdown, the S&L bailout, the Toyota debacle, the Massey mine collapse and two exploding space shuttles have done any better?

Still, as a barometer of Obama's political position, it'd be hard to top the rant that James Carville unleashed yesterday on "Good Morning America." The Cajun rage was on display as the Louisiana native, normally a reliably Democratic voice, let loose:

"The president of the United States could have come down here, he could have been involved with the families of these 11 people. . . . He could be commandeering tankers and making BP bring tankers in and clean this up. They could be deploying people to the coast right now. He could be with the Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard . . . doing something about these regulations. These people are crying, they're begging for something down here, and it just looks like he's not involved in this. Man, you've got to get down here and take control of this, put somebody in charge of this thing and get this thing moving. We're about to die down here."

I've seen interviews with Louisiana shrimpers and others who are watching their livelihood be destroyed and it's heart-rending. The government deserves a large slice of the blame for rubber-stamping industry permits in the first place. And the lack of aggressive reporting on these agencies has become the signal failure of Washington journalism.

The incumbent takes the hit when things go wrong, even if the bumbling response is primarily BP's fault. That's how politics works. USA Today goes with the day's cliche -- "Is oil spill becoming Obama's Katrina?" -- in reporting that 53 percent in its poll disapprove of his handling of the crisis.

But I wonder whether some of the demands now being made of Obama are realistic. What should he do now?

Atlantic's Marc Ambinder looks at the public's frustration:

"Washington likes its scalps, and Paul Krugman is salivating for one. He blogged that the Department of the Interior had woefully mishandled the response to the BP oil disaster:

"Every day there's another news story with Ken Salazar firmly declaring that he's losing patience with BP, and that if the company doesn't get with it. . . . he'll make another firm declaration tomorrow. . . .

"Krugman's right. Interior has dropped the ball. But so has everyone. The ball is too heavy. . . .

"There is absolutely an argument to be made that Republican anti-regulatory zeal neutered the Interior Department, and that the Obama administration had to build up the capacity. But both Democrats and Republicans expect their government to handle existential crisis, particularly manmade ones. But the truth of the matter here is that the gushing oil might not be able to be capped. . . .

"The public is sick of political posturing. These congressional hearings that Democrats are holding -- they certainly are useful exercises in ventilation, but really, the focus right now shouldn't be on blame assigning, it should be on crisis mitigation. Congress needs to stop yapping and start figuring out what it can do to support the administration, which, whether you like it or not, is on the hook for this. Obama ran for president because he wanted to make government work again. He's had a tough time convincing people that it is possible for government to work benignly. . . .What happens when you're called upon to solve an unsolvable problem?"

Allahpundit is gushing criticism:

"If Bush had uttered something as mindlessly self-evident as 'plug the damn hole' during crisis management, there'd already be T-shirts on sale on lefty blogs with that phrase emblazoned over a picture of him looking like a baboon."

WP columnist Steven Pearlstein delivers a righteous indictment:

"The biggest oil spill ever. The biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The deadliest mine disaster in 25 years. One recall after another of toys from China, of vehicles from Toyota, of hamburgers from roach-infested processing plants. The whole Vioxx fiasco. And let's not forget the biggest climate threat since the Ice Age.

"Even if you're not into conspiracy theories, it's hard to ignore the common thread running through these recent crises: the glaring failure of government regulators to protect the public. Regulators who were cowed by industry or intimidated by politicians. Regulators who were compromised by favors or prospects of industry employment. Regulators who were better at calculating the costs of oversight than the benefits. And regulators who were blinded by their ideological bias against government interference and their faith that industries could police themselves. . . .

"It hardly captures the breadth and depth of these regulatory failures to say that during the Bush administration the pendulum swung a bit too far in the direction of deregulation and lax enforcement. What it misses is just how dramatically the regulatory agencies have been shrunken in size, stripped of talent and resources, demoralized by lousy leadership, captured by the industries they were meant to oversee and undermined by political interference and relentless attacks on their competence and purpose. And it makes it perfectly laughable to suggest, as many in the business community now do, that during the first 16 months of the Obama administration the pendulum has already swung back too far in the other direction."

The Obamaites certainly didn't crack down on the porn-watching MMS regulators.

Sestak's secret

I've tried to get excited about the Joe Sestak flap, I really have. Here you have the congressman who knocked off Arlen Specter, charging that the White House offered him a job to stay out of the Senate race. But it seems to me this sort of thing happens all the time. Unless threats and coercion are involved, it sounds like the usual political horse-trading: If you sit this one out, we'll back you next time, or you've got a bright future, or whatever.

The New Republic's Jonathan Chait pooh-poohs the whole episode:

"So the accusation is some kind of quid pro quo in which Sestak would receive a job in return for quitting the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. This is ridiculous. You can't offer a senator, or prospective senator, a job in exchange for them abandoning the senate, because accepting the job inherently means leaving the Senate. You can't be both a senator and an executive branch employee. Last year, the White House offered a cabinet job to Senator Judd Gregg. This was not 'in exchange' for him leaving the Senate, because he had to leave the Senate to take the job. Moreover, Gregg briefly accepted the job in exchange for a promise that New Hampshire's Democratic governor would appoint his Republican chief of staff, not a Democrat, to replace him. But nobody suggested that this deal was illegal or unethical. . . .

"The administration should have to come clean on any matter where there's a credible charge of illegal or unethical behavior. But just because Obama (like every post-Nixon presidential candidate) promised an ethical and transparent administration, should the media hold him to the absurd standard that it has the duty to reveal any private conversation?"

Yet David Frum asks a reasonable question: "Why doesn't Joe Sestak come clean?

"The Pennsylvania Democrat acknowledges that the White House offered him a job if he would withdraw from the Senate race against Arlen Specter. That offer raises embarrassing ethical questions for the White House, possibly legal jeopardy.

"But Sestak did nothing wrong. If he was offered a bribe (big if), he rejected it. No crime, no impropriety, no 'appearance of impropriety' in that. So why not confess all. . . .

"The only beneficiary of Sestak's current silence is the White House staff. And they never wanted him to be a senator in the first place. Why take the bullet for them?"

Sestak, after all, is the one who put this in play.

Nosy neighbor

Sarah Palin complains on her Facebook page that after "putting on the shorts and tank top" to do some gardening, she discovered a new neighbor peering at her -- Joe McGinniss, the controversial author who's writing a book about her.

Should McGinniss be renting the Wasilla house next door? Slate's Jack Shafer says "that I admire his determination to get the story and have no problems, ethically or morally, with him getting as close to his subject as possible -- even if his technique seems a little stalkerish. Besides, there's a long journalistic tradition of wearing sources and subjects down until they surrender."

But National Review's Daniel Foster objects:

"There has always been a certain creepiness associated with the left's coverage of Sarah Palin. . . . Nor is this the first time McGinniss has shown a willingness to drop serious bank for the privilege of being close to the former Alaska governor. Last year, he bid over $60k at a charity auction for the chance to have dinner with Palin, falling just short of winning."

It does feel awfully intrusive and kinda unfair.

The pimp's plea

"James O'Keefe, who is best known for bringing down the community-organizing group ACORN by posing as a pimp, pleaded guilty yesterday to unlawfully entering federal property, but he avoided jail time, according to reports.

"O'Keefe and three others were arrested earlier this year when they entered the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) disguised as telephone workers, in an alleged attempt to tamper with the senator's phones and determine whether she was ignoring constituents' calls. . . . O'Keefe pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years of probation, a fine of $1,500 and 100 hours of community service."

Which he'll probably count as a victory.

Books and bias

When I saw The Washington Post had assigned David Frum to review a new book on Rush Limbaugh, I thought it was a questionable choice, given that he is one of Rush's most outspoken critics and wrote last week's Newsweek cover story, "Why Rush Is Wrong."

At the conservative Media Research Center, Tim Graham cries foul:

"The Washington Post knows how to thrust two middle fingers in Rush Limbaugh's face. They decided to put a book review of the new Zev Chavets book on Limbaugh on the front page of Tuesday's Style section, reviewed by . . . David Frum, the Republican establishment's leading Rush-hater.

"This is a little like assigning a Bill Clinton book review to Jim Clyburn, so he can call him a racist again for 1,000 words. There's more hate than light. Frum gnashes his teeth hardest late in the review, jealous that he, the wise and humble Frum, is not acknowledged by all as the country's leading conservative intellectual."

Frum responds:

"Hate, jealousy, etc. are strong words. They are visibly not substantiated by the extract Graham quotes, most of which in turn is quoted by Chafets. My advice to Tim: stick to the facts, omit the mind-reading.

"It is not I who 'cannot seem to distinguish between intellectual leaders and political leaders.' The claim that Limbaugh has displaced Reagan is made by Limbaugh's enthusiastic biographer, by Zev Chafets, right up there in black and white."

Post ombudsman Andy Alexander investigates:

"Post Book World Editor Rachel Shea said she was unaware that Frum had written last year's critical Newsweek piece. . . . But she said she was aware of debate Frum had stirred over how the GOP could best position itself with voters. And she said The Post chose Frum precisely because 'it's no surprise where he was coming from.' 'There was no way we could find someone who didn't have an opinion' about Limbaugh, she said. 'In the absence of finding someone who is completely dispassionate, we decided to go with somebody who people know.'

"But should Frum's review have noted his past pointed criticism of Limbaugh, for those readers who were unaware? 'I suppose we should have,' Shea said. I agree. Limbaugh is a fascinating figure to many readers, regardless of their ideological orientation. Not everyone is aware of the feuds within the conservative movement. In this case, transparency is important for those coming to the review without prior knowledge of the Frum-Limbaugh clash."

Evidence of an affair?

Along with much of the media, I reported this week that South Carolina blogger Will Folks claimed to have had an affair with Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, and that she had denied it. Was it true? It was a classic he said/she said impasse. But now Folks's Web site, FITSnews, is calling out the state rep:

"Why isn't Nikki suing us?

"After all, our founding editor made a flat out definitive statement: 'Several years ago, prior to my marriage, I had an inappropriate physical relationship with Nikki.'

"The fact that he said that defensively -- in an effort to protect his family -- doesn't change the fact there was no 'allegedly,' 'reportedly,' 'according to' or 'sources say' about it. It was an unambiguous, declarative statement, the sort of unambiguous, declarative statement that could land a man in a lot of trouble were it proven to be 'categorically false,' as Haley claims that it is. . . .

"So. . . . what would several years worth of phone records, text messages, emails and voice mails between Will Folks and Nikki Haley look/read like? And will we ever get to see that voluminous record of correspondence?

"Well. . . . All we can tell you for now is that the record of correspondence between the two of them began on November 20, 2005 -- with an email sent at 8:33 a.m. from Haley's State House email address ( to Will Folks' personal address ( in which Haley complimented Folks on an article he had written praising her gubernatorial ambitions. We know. . . . how ironic is that?

"That four-and-a-half year record of correspondence ended on Saturday, May 22, 2010 -- three days ago -- with a text message sent from Folks' cell phone to Haley's cell phone at 1:04 p.m. alerting her to the fact that he had been placed in a position where he felt that he had no choice but to address the rumors regarding their relationship on his website."

I'm going to guess that we haven't heard the end of this.

It's true, no slant

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about Lewis Dvorkin's new site, True/Slant, an iconoclastic collection of commentators who are given an equity stake or share of advertising they bring in -- such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin sponsoring space reports by Miles O'Brien. Now founder Lewis Dvorkin confirms rumors that Forbes has bought the thing. But not all the writers keep their gigs: "Some of you may be interested in moving with us to Forbes."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, 'Reliable Sources.'

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