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Shields and Brooks on Barton’s Apology, Obama’s Pressure on BP

June 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top political stories of the week, including the political uproar over Rep. Joe Barton's apology to BP and whether President Obama strongarmed the company into creating a $20 billion escrow fund for victims of the Gulf disaster.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

On the oil spill, David, Congressman Joe Barton’s apology to BP and then his apology about the apology, are you as upset about this as so many others?

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: No, I am not as upset. Politically, it was an unbelievably stupid thing. And, substantively, it was two-thirds of an unbelievably stupid thing.

But let me go on the one-third…

JIM LEHRER: OK, on one-third.

DAVID BROOKS: … where I think he actually had a kernel of truth at the core of what he said, which is that we’re a nation of laws. We have laws to protect the unpopular, and to even protect people who do bad things.

And we have a set of laws, when somebody does something bad, does something negligent, to force them to pay and compensate those who were damaged. And that’s all on the books. And what President Obama did when he very publicly and very brutally strong-armed BP into setting aside this $20 billion, is, he went around those laws.

And some people think, oh, it’s no problem. It’s only BP. Well, if you’re upset about — I mean, if imagine if Dick Cheney did it to somebody he didn’t like and said, oh, we don’t happen to like you. We’re going to set $20 billion aside, and I will appoint the person is going to decide what is going to happen to that $20 billion.

Now, I’m not personally worried about what’s going to happen to this $20 billion, because Ken Feinberg, who was on the show earlier, is a hero. He will be honest. He will be straight. So, I’m not worried about that.

I’m worried about the erosion of the rule of law, which is a president using the vast powers of the federal government to strong-arm a company, no matter how unpopular and no matter how badly they may have behaved.

JIM LEHRER: You see it the same way, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t, Jim. I think David’s one-third is interesting, but not persuasive.

This was not the president brutalizing anybody. BP made a corporate decision, its leadership did, at the outset to acknowledge accountability and responsibility, to assure that they would, in fact, pay the full cost, and make people whole.

And what the president did — and I think it can be said of the president that he may not have been Jack Kennedy in the Oval Office, but he was Lyndon Johnson behind closed doors at the White House. I think he took that and put bones and flesh on it and said, OK, this is what it’s going to be. And you can come up with $20 billion, and they — they could have delayed the process. They could have gone the legal due process and all the rest of it and had lawyered up.

And I think it was in BP’s interest, as a corporation, as an institution, for its reputation, for its solvency, for its well-being, in fact, to cooperate with the president. I don’t — I don’t think there was a brutality involved at all.

JIM LEHRER: So, you don’t agree with David that this was a misuse of presidential power?

MARK SHIELDS: No.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the — the kickback toward Joe Barton? Did he deserve what he got?

MARK SHIELDS: Joe Barton, right now, the House Republican Caucus, he could not get a Mother’s Day resolution passed.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: It is that bad for him. He is — he is isolated.

Here was a story. The president’s speech played, at best, to mixed reviews. So, the thing is kind of coming along. And what does Joe Barton do? He takes BP, which is a lowly regarded institution in our society right now, and identifies them with the Republican Party.

I mean, he puts a Republican face on the defense of BP. And it’s almost an inclination, it seems to me, to blame America first. These people are so consumed with their animus towards Barack Obama that they’re going to go on the side of BP, because BP is on the other side.

And I just think Joe — Joe Barton — Joe Barton will not be the chairman if the Republicans take over the committee — take over the Congress. He will not be the ranking member. Joe Barton’s seen his best days in the House of Representatives.

JIM LEHRER: David, I think that’s a yes.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I — well, I — politically, I completely agree.

JIM LEHRER: You do?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, politically, just, if you’re thinking where should the attention be, it should not be on the Republican Party and some stupid thing some guy said. And, so, politically, it was insane.

But, if I could vent my general frustration with the week…

JIM LEHRER: You may.

DAVID BROOKS: … we had a week of hearings. Did the president emote properly? Did the head of BP emote properly? Did Joe Barton say something stupid? We had all our little puddle of narcissism here in Washington.

And, yet, down on the Gulf, there’s actually a lot happening which we are not paying attention to, because we’re worried about ourselves. You had governors outraged about this and that. You had the governor of Louisiana in a confrontation with the Coast Guard about these oil vacuum barges.

You had counties voting to almost secede from the country, saying, we’re so sick of your incompetence, we’re going to take care of our own county. You had cities, what, submitting plans to get the oil to not hit them. They never hear back. The oil rolls right in and hits them.

So, you have got a lot of actual substance happening down there on the Gulf, really serious stuff. And we have hearings. We have emoting. We have ourselves looking at ourselves.

And Barton is a small part of the idiocy of really what was a period of incredible self-regard in Washington.

MARK SHIELDS: David had a hell of a week.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: He really did.

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: We were all in this together.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I thought — I thought the president addressed the nation. I thought he addressed the topic. I thought he explained as best he could what his administration has done, what was being done for the people down there under his watch.

I agree with David that it — that the lines of authority have not been clear and not been effective. But I don’t think — I mean, the hearing in Washington wasn’t some sort of megalomaniacal narcissism.

It is what Washington does. I mean, this guy is going to come in, Tony Hayward. He knows he’s chopped liver. I mean, he’s not going to be with the company once this thing — I mean, at Christmas. And he wants his life back. He’s going to get his life back.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, he was a human pinata.

And it would have been, as David described it, but for Joe Barton. I mean, Joe Barton rescued the Democrats from themselves. He rescued Tony Hayward, too.

JIM LEHRER: One more hearing question, if I can ask, David, OK?

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: How did you think Hayward did?

DAVID BROOKS: How dare you ask me that?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: No. I thought he did horribly.

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: Obviously…

JIM LEHRER: Things are going to be OK.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Obviously — I will lie down here, if you don’t mind.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Listen, the guy was — had this big, important job. At the time, he probably wasn’t there when the decisions were being made, and yet he has eyes. He has ears. He has staff. He can be briefed. He can learn about these things.

I’m sure Barack Obama didn’t know much either five, six weeks ago, but he has been briefed. But, apparently, Hayward has not been briefed, because he just said, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

Well, didn’t he get briefed? Doesn’t he know what happened under his own command? And so I thought his performance was reasonably pathetic.

JIM LEHRER: Well, I think Mark wants to defend Tony Hayward…

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I mean, Tony Hayward was sort of the Alberto Gonzales of international oil companies. I mean, it was just sort of…

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: He was the attorney general under George W. Bush.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: The attorney general who you never could figure out what was within his purview of authority and just exactly…

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, right, right.

MARK SHIELDS: … what — what he was responsible for.

And, I mean, Tony — Tony Hayward looks like he’s been on scholarship. But I think the thing is that he has a legal problem, and…

JIM LEHRER: BP does.

MARK SHIELDS: BP does.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: And I think he had to be sort of as he was.

JIM LEHRER: Well, just speaking of problems — this is called a segue — what about South Carolina’s problem for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate? How — what’s going on? What do you think that’s all about?

Is that — in other words, is there a bigger message here, that people voted for somebody that they never had heard of, and by a large margin, and now we have a Democratic nominee for the United States Senate, Alvin Greene?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know — I don’t know, Jim, if the machine thing, which the losing candidate said the machines were not responsive.

You know, the great vast conspiracy, which a lot of Democrats embraced right at the outset, that Republicans came over and voted in the Democratic primary so they would get this weak candidate who would be an embarrassment to the party, the Democrats weren’t even playing in South Carolina in the national party, because Jim DeMint is an overwhelming favorite.

So, this has got…

JIM LEHRER: He’s the Republican incumbent.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Republican incumbent and a national conservative leader.

And I think what — the one point that is still unanswered is that question of where did this unemployed veteran with an involuntary discharge from the military get the $10,400 that’s required in South Carolina to file to run for the United States Senate?

JIM LEHRER: Do you find a message here?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, I don’t really care whether he got the — where he got the $10,000. Obviously, it would interesting to know, but it’s not dispositive, because, apparently, people voted for him.

And, if people voted for him, wherever he got the money, they voted for him. And I think it would be very hard politically, in a democratic country, to take that nomination away, assuming the votes were fairly counted.

As for the larger message, I always detest candidates while they’re campaigning. So, the fact that he didn’t campaign made — he didn’t lower himself in my eyes. So, that’s maybe the secret here. Don’t campaign.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Let’s talk for a moment here about the Arlington Cemetery problem. Talk about a BP situation, this is — this is relevant, is it not, similar?

MARK SHIELDS: This is — if BP and that continuing 60,000 gallons a day is a metaphor for government not being able to work and the corporate structure not being able to work, Arlington Cemetery is a blasphemy of and a metaphor of ineptitude.

I mean, what we have found out, in this marvelous place, for 144 years — 146 years, since 1864 — Americans have been buried there who qualified the standards to meet military service. And, I mean, there are all kinds of famous people. There is Audie Murphy, who killed 240 Germans in World War II.

JIM LEHRER: From Farmersville, Texas, Audie Murphy of Farmersville, Texas, yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, the most decorated American in World War II. There’s young Naval lieutenants, one who became president, Jack Kennedy. Another became Supreme Court chief justice, Earl Warren. There’s Joe Louis.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: But there’s 300,000 people, Jim, who aren’t famous, and whose families go there for a connection, for consolation.

And we find out that at least 211 graves are misidentified, misplaced, and wrong headstones. This is not rocket science. I mean, this is — these people are entitled to it. We owe them the respect. And it’s — to me, it is truly an outrage, and it makes me sad and angry simultaneously.

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Mark used the word blasphemy. I mean, it is sacred. I mean, it’s a different level of — there are very few things that happen in this town — they’re mostly about tax policy. But the remains of these Marines, soldiers, everyone are — they are sacred.

And, so, to mess up on that is really to trample on something that’s very important. But this, as well as BP, as well as a lot of things we have seen in this town, or in the country for a long time, it is about execution.

And we have a very high regard for vision. I write. You know, we do all this.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s — vision’s important. But actually executing properly, getting the proper computer system there, even after millions have been spent, executing in the Gulf, executing on an oil platform, that is underplayed in a society that likes something fancy, something oratorical, but actually executing is tremendously important, upon which everything else exists. And we have a failure of execution on BP, a failure of execution I think now in the Gulf, and certainly at Arlington.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

Do you agree, that’s the over message — that’s the overriding message here, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it is. I mean, and it’s to Secretary of the Army McHugh’s credit. I mean, I think his anger with this was genuine. And I think you have to really give credit to the reporter for Salon.mag, Mark — what’s his name? Oh, boy oh, boy, I should remember it. And I should — I do know it.

JIM LEHRER: You mean Salon…

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: Salon.com.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Salon.com.

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: Salon.com, an online…

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: And he did — and he did all of the — and I apologize for that — he did all the reports, and he’s done them over the last year, Jim, and he finally forced the inspector general of the Army to address it.

JIM LEHRER: The inspector general made the report, and the secretary of the Army announced it, made it public, and…

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. And the two top civilian heads have been relieved of duty.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. All right. All right.

Thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.