Paul Greenberg

If you missed the president's news conference Thursday, his first in 10 months, here's a succinct summary: It was about the oil spill. And it's mainly somebody else's fault.

Whose? BP's or the previous administration's (his favorite scapegoat even though he's been president now for some 16 months). Or it's the fault of unnnamed "federal agencies" he really has nothing to do with, or the "culture" of the oil industry and government regulation thereof, or ... you name it.

This he called taking responsibility.

Yes, the president admitted his administration was too slow when it came to preventing the catastrophe, and "I take responsibility for that. There wasn't sufficient urgency in terms of the pace of how those changes needed to take place. Obviously, they weren't happening fast enough."

Rush Limbaugh

But that confession required only seconds; the rest of his hour-long press conference was pretty much devoted to how other people hadn't done their jobs. You'd think he was back on the campaign trail attacking the president. Somebody ought to tell him he's the president now.

Nothing has been so revealing of this commander-in-chief's lack of military training than his response or lack thereof to this long, slowly but ever deepening crisis. Because instead of just saying, "No excuse, sir," and clearing the air, there he was at still another rostrum last week talking, talking, talking ... instead of clearly acting on the ground, or rather in the water. The sludge, both physical and political, just keeps coming.

Campaigning and governing mix in a republic, and certainly in a democracy. It's hard to draw the line between spirit and substance. Which was it that buoyed the country when FDR and later Ronald Reagan lifted the nation's morale -- their sublime confidence or actual policies? The two mixed. But in this administration, they begin to separate -- as clearly as oil and water. Disenchantment sets in, and with it failure.

This administration, the president wants us to know, has been on this crisis since, yes, Day One: "Those who think we were either slow on the response or lacked urgency, don't know the facts. This has been our highest priority."

That's nice. But if the administration really has acted quickly, urgently, then why did his Director of Minerals Management have to resign just hours before his press conference? Was it just a coincidence? Did she just happen to pick this time to decide she needed some down time?

The director -- S. Elizabeth Birnbaum. Esq. -- left "on her own volition," announced Ken Salazar, who is still secretary of the Interior. Is it only the lower-downs in this administration who have enough shame to submit their resignation when things go terribly wrong on their watch? Who knows? Not the president. When asked about it, he said he'd just heard about the resignation that day, and didn't "know the circumstances in which this occurred." That was just after he'd got through explaining yet again how on top of things he's been.

So whom are you going to believe, the president's description of this administration as responsive and fast-acting, moving urgently to contain the catastrophe, or your own lying eyes?

Down in Louisiana, the Cajun Cato himself, James Carville, sounded less like the defender of the administration he's consistently been and more like another worried, frustrated and impatient Louisianan. The president, he complained, "just looks like he's not involved in this. Man, you got to get down here and take control of this and put somebody in charge of this thing and get this thing moving. We're about to die down here."

The moral of this story: When it's your own shoreline that's in danger, it kind of changes your perspective. It gives you, in the words of that scholarly work of political science, "A Boy Named Sue," a different point of view. (Cash, J.) That's when politics stops being some kind of abstract, spectator sport and becomes a matter of life and death. Mr. Carville has started sounding like Randy Newman singing the Looziana Blues: "Louisiana, Louisiana, they're tryin' to wash us away...." Again. In oil this time.

Last time, it was Katrina. By the time George W. Bush finally jettisoned his flood czar, Michael "Brownie, you're doin' a heckuva job" Brown, much of the damage -- human and political -- had been done. In the end, having to work with a bumbling governor and an equally inept but raging mayor of New Orleans, that president tried to muddle through -- and failed miserably. Finally, much too late, he found his can-do man in Lieut. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, U.S.A., a commander even Ragin' Ray Nagin, aforesaid joker of a mayor, had to approve of.

As soon as the Creole Napoleon landed, he could be seen all over the streets of the flooded city barking orders at mere colonels. Or as Mayor Nagin had to admit: "Now, I will tell you this -- and I give the president some credit on this -- he sent one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done, and his name is Gen. Honoré. And he came off the doggone chopper, and he started cussin' and people started movin'. And he's getting some stuff done."

But where is this president's General Honoré? Happily, Louisiana now has a governor who actually seems to know his business -- Bobby Jindal -- but the feds keep dragging their feet whenever he makes recommendations. Such as: Quick, build barrier islands. (And send the bill to BP.) Quick, get out of the way and let city and parish officials protect their people and resources. Quick, get Louisiana more booms to ward off the approaching tide of gunk before the Gulf Coast starts to look like one big used oil filter.

The last president we had was done in by a natural disaster; this one could be done in by an unnatural one. One president demonized by his kneejerk critics was enough. Please, not again. Barack Obama needs to find his General Honoré in a hurry. Wouldn't it be something if he chose this young, energetic, proven governor to lead the charge? Even if Bobby Jindal is a Republican. At last Barack Obama would begin to carry out his promise to be a leader who can work across party lines to get things done. And, boy, does something need to get done. Like yesterday. No, last month. 'Cause they're washing Louisiana away again. And ain't nobody in charge.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.