On defending the devil

WASHINGTON — The one thing you can usually expect from a politician is that he or she will speak and act in his or her own interest.

That's why the Republican hierarchy in the House went bananas when Texas Rep. Joe Barton apologized to BP about a $20 billion "shakedown" by the White House, his description of an escrow account to pay for the damages of the Gulf oil spill.

In one incredible swoop, Barton not only sided with the current No. 1 corporate public enemy. He also reinforced the GOP's collective image as friend and defender of Big Oil, one of the party's most generous and consistent campaign contributors.

Barton himself, according to the Campaign for Fair Elections, had received $27,350 in campaign contributions since his election to Congress in 1984 from BP and associated sources, and $1.4 million overall from oil industry interests.

No sooner had Barton uttered his forgiveness at the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing called to drag BP CEO Tony Hayward on the carpet than House Minority Leader John Boehner had Barton in the woodshed. Barton's description of the fund as "a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown" almost cost him his post as ranking Republican on the committee.

Barton quickly apologized for the apology and withdrew it, along with his characterization of the escrow account as a "slush fund." Other committee members of both parties also jumped on that remark as a careless smear of Obama in a congressional election year.

An unwitting beneficiary of sorts of Barton's politically self-inflicted wound was Hayward, whose stonewalling of committee questions on BP's culpability before and after the huge oil spill was overshadowed in the Republican leadership's run for cover.

Perhaps not since former Republican Minority Leader Trent Lott's memorable defense of Sen. Strom Thurmond's support of racial segregation in 2002 had a prominent politician so conspicuously shot himself in the foot as Barton had just done. That earlier comment cost Lott his Senate leadership post.

Lott on behalf of his state of Mississippi said at a 100th birthday party for the old segregationist advocate: "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Thurmond in 1948 ran on a Dixiecrat ticket but lost to President Harry Truman. The notion that had Thurmond been elected all the country's problems would have been solved, said no doubt in celebratory exuberance, was a view that the post-segregation GOP had long disavowed.

For the moment, Barton's accusation that Obama had shaken down BP for the $20 billion fund to pay oil spill victims' claims only reinforced the president's position as being on the side of the angels.

Vice President Joe Biden immediately jumped to Obama's defense, calling the shakedown characterization "incredibly insensitive" and "incredibly out of touch." The new escrow account, he said, represented "responsible conduct (from BP) and a responsible response to something they caused."

The president himself a day earlier, while continuing to hold BP responsible for the spill and restitution for all damages, had said he had no intention of undermining BP. He called the firm "a strong and viable company," and said "it is in all our interests that it remain so."

Obama's Oval Office speech the other night drew considerable public and news media criticism for lack of specificity on steps he intended to take to bring more order to the response to the disaster. But the Barton remarks and Boehner's rush to disown them in behalf of the Republican Party put the party on the defensive.

As for BP itself, the executives who met with Obama the other day knew their company's conduct was what had put them over a barrel on the escrow account, and they had no choice but to comply. Their own awareness of the terrible blow BP suffered from the spill continues to be demonstrated in their heavy television advertisements apologizing to the American public, which themselves may prove to be counterproductive.

Jules Witcover's latest book, on the Nixon-Agnew relationship, "Very Strange Bedfellows," has just been published by Public Affairs Press. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover(at)comcast.net.

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