Gulf Oil Spill is Obama's High Noon

A "Washington Spring Journal" recap of political events.

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By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Spring began in a politically poetic way: passage of healthcare reform by the People's House, at long last. Good that the last scene was played out in the chamber that actually deserved the kudos. The Chinook wind was sweeter than usual after a long hard winter and the young president looked like a winner. This town loves a winner.

Then strange things started happening. Here are some Spring Journal notes on an outsize, oil soaked, outlandish season in the capital city containing all the contradictions of the American people, writ small inside the square laid out by George Washington. Remember immigration and how Arizona's new police state was rushing things along on that bitter front? Things are at an unpretty pass in the Grand Canyon state in more ways than one. J.D. Hayworth is someone Sinclair Lewis might have sketched as satire a blustery Elmer Gantryesque character in search of a political stage called the Senate. That would be an ignoble last act for John McCain, the old campaigner, if he loses in the primary to Hayworth. And the race will be bellwether close. Much as we adore McCain when he is inside the city limits of Washington, he's out of ideas and he looks the Ancient Mariner. [See which industries donated the most to McCain.]

Because of the BP catastrophe, the political desert has frozen over on immigration for now. The lesson learned, let me remind the president and his Cabinet-pickers, you never take a Democratic governor off a red state on the national political chessboard. If Janet Napolitano were still the governor there, the whole debacle never would have happened. It's easy to find a non-elected head of Homeland Security, but it's not so easy to keep a blue hold or check on a state gushing red. President Barack Obama did the same with Kathleen Sibelius of Kansas, but that was to plug a hole in the Tom Daschle situation in the early days of his presidency. I still don't think that was a good call; Daschle was the man for all seasons in the Senate on healthcare reform and he could have made it happen with waiting for Sen. Olympia Snowe to melt. Maine snow doesn't melt in summer. Be that as it may, bringing Napolitano to Washington--for no compelling reason--let loose a spill of political rage. [ See who supports Snowe.]

Now for BP, the April house guest in our lives that has devastated us long enough. Whether or not it was the reality, the perception is that the president and his people watched it unfold in slow motion, even when the scale and the stakes of the environmental tragedy became unacceptably high. Obama, who's surpassingly good at words, didn't summon thunder in his voice. To everything there is a season and this was a time to sound like an Old Testament prophet, salting his words with wrath. Or, if you prefer, like the sheriff that tells BP to get out of town by sundown. This is the High Noon of his presidency. [See photos of the Gulf oil spill disaster.]

A sublime Hamlet, played by Graham Michael Hamilton, is on at the Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill, making the loyal restless in the court. Healthcare reform seems like a dream to us now. An uneasiness lingers about: the young president, who had torrents of rain pour on him on Memorial Day. After BP, he needs more outrageous fortune on his summer schedule. When Maureen Dowd sighs for the old days of President Clinton's perfect pitch in capturing and expressing the people's pain, then something is amiss in Washington.

That's one thing another ardent Clinton critic will never have the grace to do. Count on Christopher Hitchens to never have a good word to say about Bill Clinton The high ground he seems to stand on in his personal life turns out to have holes, too, but somehow he makes virtues of his vices. If the great soul of wit, Dr. Johnson, ever happened to dine with Hitchens at his fortnightly dinner club full of England's most brilliant gentlemen, he'd say this to his face: "Depend upon it, Sir, you are a very good hater." And Boswell would note it for the ages. Instead, in a glowing Washington Post Style piece on Hitchens' new memoir, Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote this perplexing praise: "A conversation with Hitchens mimics a trip through Wikipedia. Every thought is hyperlinked..." and so on. Now I do enjoy English wit, charm, and humor--my English ex-husband is now the general counsel of BP with a huge battle on his hands.

Perhaps "Hitch" is more winning in person than his diatribes suggest. He would almost have to be, given how the Washington waters have parted for his overflowing vitriol over the years. (Maybe I am just jealous?)

To open up June like a window, one Englishman stole the Spring show in the White House--Sir Paul McCartney, winner of the Gershwin Prize this week, serenaded the Obama family and their guests with the songs only he makes seem young again. The Library of Congress organized this spectacular happening, like a visitation. Sir Paul said it better than Dr. Johnson, Hitchens, and even the Bard: "After the last eight years, it's good to have a president that knows what a library is."

That cleared the air. Let's hope the water is not far behind.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the Gulf oil spill.
  • See which industries give the most to Congress.
  • See photos of the Gulf oil spill disaster.