Nothing leaves one feeling more in need of a Corexit shower than finger pointing during a crisis. Ruined oyster-men’s testimonials and pictures of tarred sea critters frame the Gulf Coast oil leak as a tragedy. Blustering ex-politicos turned cable news pundits and press conferences obsessed with finding fault trivialize that tragedy.
Several weeks ago the president boldly announced that competence will be the federal government’s new threshold for excellence. Competence as a goal for a functioning bureaucracy sounds reasonable. A simple, straightforward permitting process for deep-water drilling that requires redundant emergency shut-off mechanisms in place before drilling seems like competence.
Forty-three oily days and nights have left the American people abandoning the need for competence. At this point the nation yearns for leadership, not competence. Leadership, that fleeting characteristic of modern politicians, has fallen victim to blame avoidance. The skill of extracting blame as an element of responsibility enriches political consultants and spin doctors. It emasculates leadership.
All 43 of those unique individuals who occupied the Presidency experienced unforeseen and uncontrollable events. The electorate appointed blame accordingly and reasonably when they witnessed leadership in action. That reasonableness emanates from a common-sense expectation that leaders will lead in times of crisis.
President Bush enjoyed the profits of effective leadership when he stood, bullhorn in hand, on the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11. Amid the chaos Americans felt their president caring for them and guiding them to safety. After Katrina, they saw that same leader avoiding the chaos, and his role, from 35,000 feet above. He fell victim to the image of not caring. That imagine rapidly evolved cockeyed to culpability for everything that went wrong in the aftermath. His credibility and authority to lead drowned in blame.
That same incongruous reasoning threatens to contaminate our president’s leadership. Plugging the blame-gushing holes with more blame and finger-pointing hints at weakness. Grabbing a bullhorn and standing knee-deep in a salty marsh would inspire the confidence of a leader.
Keenly aware of the opportunities that crises bring this administration has an occasion to lead the nation away from the petty politics and the childish ways of the blame game. The ruinous contamination of oil spewing uncontrollably is the enemy at this point, not a corporation, a government agency, a political party or a past president.
Jeff Sural is an attorney working in Washington, D.C.