Wee people, contagious apologies

Posted June 18, 2010, at 6:17 p.m.

After his well-chronicled meeting with President Barack Obama concerning the catastrophic mother of all oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, a seemingly tone-deaf Carl-Henric Svanberg, chairman of the beleaguered BP oil company, told reporters, “We care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies, or greedy companies, don’t care. But that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people.”

To no one’s surprise, the “small people” of the Gulf Coast — whose lives have been pretty much ruined by the monumental oil spill that was triggered when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up two months ago — did not take kindly to the words of Svanberg, who subsequently issued an apology. The Swedish executive characterized his unfortunate choice of words as “clumsy,” and suggested they had lost something in the translation to English, his second language.

The Wall Street Journal said the gaffe “instantly eroded the goodwill BP had just purchased at a hefty $20 billion price tag in its negotiations with Obama.” BP — the oil company formerly known as British Petroleum — had agreed earlier in the day to several demands by Obama, including the establishment of a $20 billion escrow compensation fund for Gulf Coast residents and businesses.

“Now we know that BP stands for ‘Big People,’” one cynical wag wrote on an Internet blog, and that seemed to be the prevailing sentiment in that medium, although several commentators defended the chairman on grounds that the usage was some sort of European construction that might not have been considered offensive on Svanberg’s home turf.

In any case, the “small people” reference was reminiscent of a classic snobbish observation that will remain forever linked to the late billionaire New York City hotel operator and real estate investor, Leona Helmsley, the tart-tongued tyrant dubbed “The Queen of Mean” by the tabloids.

Helmsley was convicted of federal income tax evasion in 1989 and sent to prison. During the trial, a former housekeeper testified she had heard Helmsley say, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes …”

Svanberg is not the only BP executive to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease during the continuing fiasco in the Gulf. Soon after the Deepwater Horizon caught fire and sank, killing 11 workers, besieged CEO Tony Hayward told reporters he was as upset as about the tragedy as anyone. “I’d like to have my life back,” he declared in his clipped British accent, and anyone watching the exchange on television knew instinctively that the obligatory apology for an insensitive remark would not be far behind.

The apology thing turned out to be contagious. On Thursday, when Hayward was skewered by a merciless House of Representatives subcommittee looking into the oil spill calamity, Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton, a member of the panel, apologized to Hayward for what he termed the Obama administration’s “shakedown” of BP that resulted in establishment of the $20 billion “slush fund.”

Later, perhaps under pressure from a Republican leadership that knows a public relations train wreck when it sees one developing, Barton retracted his apology to BP and apologized anew — this time for his “shakedown” characterization. Didn’t want anyone to misconstrue his position, which is that BP owns this national nightmare from beginning to end, he explained. Nor, one presumes, did he much care to have anyone jumping to erroneous conclusions about contributions to his political campaigns by the oil and gas industry.

The House panel’s relentless public flogging of Hayward didn’t resolve much, other than to verify that the Brit had been well programmed by his lawyers to maintain a stiff upper lip while evading most of the tough questions. But it did allow committee members to huff and puff and play shamelessly to the television cameras before an electorate that polls show to be about as fed up with politicians as with BP’s role in the greatest environmental disaster in the history of this country.

“Righteous Indignation Meets Spectacular Stonewalling in Mexican Standoff” would have been a swell morning-after headline for the performance. Riveting theater though it may have been — even for the small people — anyone who could honestly claim to know more about the situation when the show ended than when it began was the rare bird, indeed.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.com.

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