Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

They Must Know What They're Doing

In the 1960s, an editor I knew proposed a snarky picture book to be titled "They Must Know What They're Doing or They Wouldn't Be Where They Are" that would show the captain of the Titanic, the designer of the Edsel, LBJ directing the Vietnam war and other examples of low acumen in high places.

Since then, the list has grown with Nixon at Watergate, Jimmy Carter's bumbling on the Tehran captives, George W's Iraq occupation, Alan Greenspan handling the housing bubble, but now new candidates are arriving at warp speed.

"Everybody," David Brooks observes, "is comparing the oil spill to Hurricane Katrina, but the real parallel could be the Iranian hostage crisis...a symbol of America’s inability to take decisive action in the face of pervasive problems. In the same way, the uncontrolled oil plume could become the objective correlative of the country’s inability to govern itself."

BP's inability to stop the gush and the White House's helplessness in the face of that failure are a perfect pairing of new entries in the annals of unexpected impotence by powerful institutions.

As the Justice Department and Gulf states' Attorney Generals begin looking for ways to apply legal pressure, their dilemma is described in the Washington Post: "The opening of a criminal investigation or civil action against BP, if either were to happen, would create the unusual situation of the federal government weighing charges against a company that it is simultaneously depending on for the most critical elements of the response to the record oil spill."

Tea Party activists will surely blame all this on officeholders but that would be like watching Abbott without Costello or laughing at Laurel and ignoring Hardy as government and corporate leaders pose for their joint portrait to follow the honchos of Wall Street and Congress in the 21st century edition of "They Must Know What They're Doing..."

Update: The incompetence carnival goes on as the Justice Department announces its probe, the stock market savages BP and the "national incident commander" tries to plug the hole with cliches: "We've got to keep our heads in the game; we've got to keep our shoulders to the wheel." And look out for the icebergs.

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