Public Comment

Dancing on a Listing Deck

By Gray Brechin
Thursday May 27, 2010 - 11:17:00 AM

I watched the news today, oh boy! Channel 7 at 11 flashed back to Air Force One as it touched down at SFO in a light drizzle. From there, a caravan of stretch limos black as polished coffins carried the lucky man who made the grade through barricaded streets to a Nob Hill fundraiser for Senator Boxer. Hundreds of fans paid dearly to see and hear the lucky man press flesh and crack jokes in the Fairmont Hotel’s Edwardian opulence. The limos soon departed for an even more sybaritic reception at the Getty mansions on Pacific Heights’ Gold Coast. Yes, that’s Getty, as in Getty Oil.  

It’s Day 35 of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and President Obama is clearly having the time of his life. The Huffington Post ran photos last week of a state dinner the Obamas hosted for our neighbors from across the dying Gulf of Mexico, the Calderons. Michelle and Barack moved easefully through backdrops resembling the Hapsburgs’ Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna early in 1914.  

Unlike his immediate predecessor in the White House, Obama is comfortable in his skin and behind the shield of his dazzling smile. The audience ate up his rock star celebrity as — 2000 miles away and a mile closer to Hell — a submarine Chernobyl daily vomited an uncontrolled cloud of emulsified death inexorably curling southeast to where the Gulf Stream will hook and convey it round the world. More effectively than the atmospheric cloud from a burning Soviet reactor, the plume will kill everything that comes in contact with it. The teeming rookeries of pelicans and herons, the clams, oysters, shrimp, and crabs near the shore and the fishermen who depend on them, they are already doomed. Unless you have some shrimp in the freezer, kiss your jambalaya good bye.  

Obama has not found time in his busy schedule yet to visit the Gulf, but he has sent members of his dream team down there to demonstrate a fecklessness matched only by their deference to the private sector. As with the gang Obama assembled to run the nation’s finances, he has left it to the very industry that caused the calamity to stop and remediate it, warning BP for the cameras that he will hold the company responsible for a cleanup even he must know is impossible. That is apparently all that the public will get from an administration that has as little intention of serving its interest as the previous one. So far, a radiant smile has covered for inaction.  

Obama’s bodily ease reminded me of a president who had virtually none. Polio permanently wrecked Franklin Roosevelt’s command of his lower body at the age of 39 

From then on, his smile covered the pain with which he lived for the next 24 years. But both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt shared twin qualities for which no amount of tooth enamel can substitute: a moral compass and steel will to follow its needle.  

The Roosevelts were, after all, practicing rather than professing Christians. For every one of his four inaugurations, Franklin Roosevelt’s used the old family bible printed in Amsterdam in 1686. At his request, FDR’s hand rested on a verse from St. Paul’s First Epistle to Corinthians:: “And now abideth faith, hope, and charity; but the greatest of these is charity.” It’s a message not likely to get much traction at the University of Chicago’s Department of Economics with which Professor Obama has such close ties. It has no place in an ambitious lawyer’s resumé.  

FDR had nothing to prove to the high and mighty whom he knew all too well. “We felt that someone in the White House cared for the little guy,” an old CCC vet once told me of the man loathed by the nation’s big guys for his meddling in their affairs. His spartan stateroom on the presidential yacht Potomac now berthed in Oakland,, and the knotty pine-paneled bedroom of his cottage at Warm Springs, Georgia, measure the distance we have come to the bloated grandeur of Air Force One and the deference presidents now expect and receive from all but their bosses on Wall Street.  

This president spoke with resolve at the Fairmont about a catastrophe he seems not comprehend except as a problem for his PR staff. His stern rebukes of the company that has been gushing lies with the force of heavy crude at the wellhead can no longer cap the magnitude of the tragedy. Down in the Gulf, the planet screams out in agony, but the lucky man hasn’t noticed that the light has changed.