May 21, 2010

Presidential bashing of corporate crime, corruption and greed is as American as apple pie. While Republican Teddy Roosevelt decried "malefactors of great wealth," his distant Democratic cousin FDR announced, "I welcome their hatred." But now just days after insisting the federal government had no right to bar racial discrimination in public accommodations, Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul again reversed victim and villain in calling President Obama's criticism of BP, "un-American."

In the face of the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, Paul rushed to the defense of BP on Good Morning America. When George Stephanopolous asked, "But you don't want to get rid of the EPA?" Dr. Paul's diagnosis was that the Obama administration was persecuting the oil giant and the American free enterprise system. Accidents, he insisted, "happen":

"No, the thing is is that drilling right now and the problem we're having now is in international waters and I think there needs to be regulation of that and always has been regulation. What I don't like from the president's administration is this sort of, you know, "I'll put my boot heel on the throat of BP." I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business. I've heard nothing from BP about not paying for the spill. And I think it's part of this sort of blame game society in the sense that it's always got to be someone's fault. Instead of the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen. I mean, we had a mining accident that was very tragic and I've met a lot of these miners and their families. They're very brave people to do a dangerous job. But then we come in and it's always someone's fault. Maybe sometimes accidents happen."

Away from Planet Paul, however, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, whose company is facing possible criminal charges over its Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, testified before Congress Thursday. And while public rage against BP's negligence and duplicity mounted this week, its executives last week made very clear that they may not pay for the spill. As CBS reported, any compensation from BP beyond "legitimate claims" was a "question mark":

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., asked McKay pointedly, "Will BP pay?" beyond the $75 millions it would be legally bound to pay, even if the company were not found to be grossly negligent.

"We've been very clear, our CEO Tony Hayward has been very clear, and we are going to pay all legitimate claims," McKay said.

"Define 'legitimate,'" Landrieu asked.

"Substantiated claims," McKay said. "There's the intent to be fair, responsive and expeditious. As to the $75 million that you mention, we think we're going to exceed that obviously and that is irrelevant. We have been very clear we're going to pay the claims and the entire resources of BP are behind this.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., noted that some analysis has suggested the losses and costs involved could be as high as $14 billion, and asked if BP's payments would go that high.

"I am saying we will pay all legitimate claims, yes," McKay said.

Transocean's Newman was circumspect: "As the lease operator, that falls on BP," he said.

McKay repeated the question on impacts, from fishing to local communities: we will pay all legitimate claims.

When asked if governments would be compensated for lost tax revenues, McKay responded, "Question mark."

In April 1962, union steel workers at the behest of the Kennedy administration agreed to modest contract increases in order to tamp down inflation. But U.S. Steel nevertheless raised its prices $6 a ton. In response, a furious President John F. Kennedy publicly blasted the company for its treachery:

"Simultaneous and identical actions of United States Steel and other leading steel corporations, increasing steel prices by some 6 dollars a ton, constitute a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest...At a time when restraint and sacrifice are being asked of every citizen, the American people will find it hard, as I do, to accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans."

And as his biographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recounted in 1965, JFK had this to say after that act of corporate betrayal:

"My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it till now."

Of course, he never met Rand Paul.

(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)

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