In the opening hours and days of an unanticipated event -- such as the current off-shore oil leak, usually not much can be reliably learned about the details of the intruding event -- but much can reliably be learned about the humans responding to it.
For example, on April 29, the ninth day of the crisis, and the first day that the White House -- in the person of the president -- publicly responded to the growing mess, key players made revealing comments. We don't yet know whether the administration is culpable of the charge that they were asleep at the switch for a week -- as The New York Times has already editorially charged (just as President Bush was seen to be in the first two to three days of the Katrina crisis).
But it was clear by the 29th that the administration was sensitive to that political danger and was starting to point accusatory fingers at British Petroleum. ABC news reported:
"Asked about the relationship between the U.S. government and British Petroleum, (Coast Guard) Admiral O'Hara referred to 'the professionalism of our partner, BP' and then corrected her use of the term 'partner.' 'Yeah,' said (the ever eloquent presidential spokesman Robert) Gibbs. 'They are not a partner,' said (Secretary of Homeland Security Janet) Napolitano. 'Bad choice of words,' said O'Hara, changing her description of BP to 'a responsible party.'
Note that the admiral is a career professional doubtlessly experienced with ocean currents, but obviously not alert to the ever-shifting political currents in which she found herself. From a professional, problem-solving point of view, BP was a partner with the Coast Guard in trying to fix the mess.
But while Gibbs and Napolitano may not be able to navigate a dingy across a yacht basin, as class-A politicians, they can see which way the political currents are moving, and quickly go with the flow -- or even try to make the wave that changes the flow.
A few days later on CNN's Sunday "State of the Union" show, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar didn't have to be told the new political facts of life. He jumped right in with this little gem: "Our job basically is to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum to carry out the responsibilities they have both under the law and contractually to move forward and stop this spill."
Within three days, British Petroleum's status had shifted from being a partner with the government to having its neck pinned to the ground by a federal government boot.
In the first edition of this column (filed Monday morning), assuming that Salazar's poorly chosen phrase would be corrected, I wrote:
"Salazar has not yet come out to rephrase his indelicate words. But I can't imagine that the PR boys and girls in the White House backroom like the image of their administration placing its boot on anyone's neck. (At least I hope they don't like that image.)"
But on Monday afternoon, presidential spokesman Gibbs repeated and endorsed the phrase -- even after being questioned whether he really wanted to use that phrase.
I surely hope that the president -- who, with all his responsibilities, can't be expected to pay attention to everything his press secretary says -- now that the phrase has made the headlines, will come out and withdraw that noxious phrase uttered by both his Interior secretary and his official spokesman.
Because not only is the image of a boot on a neck inherently repulsive, but the special history of a government's boot so situated has a particularly vile history.
The most famous image is, of course, George Orwell's:
"But always -- do not forget this, Winston -- always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling forever on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever." ("1984," Part III, Chapter III)
But it doesn't require an Orwell to understand the brutalizing, sadistic nature of the image of a boot on the neck or throat. Well, for better or worse, these opening days of the oil leak crisis are revealing the temperament of the administration -- which is to publicly brutalize the company that, whether they like it or not, they are going to have to work with to mitigate the environmental harm.
Doubtlessly, there will be blame enough to go around when all the facts are known. But what we already have learned is that the administration is willing to undermine a needed good working relationship between itself and BP, as a price worth paying to try to gain an early political advantage.
Worse, it shows their attitude toward a respected member of the corporate community.
And worst of all, it shows an unhealthy disposition toward the exercise of governmental power.