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06.17.10

Why I Feel Tony Hayward's Pain

The embattled BP exec was pelted by so many inane questions from the mediocrities in Congress they almost turned the oil spill villain into a sympathetic figure.

In days of yore, when boys at British boarding schools were summoned to the headmaster’s study for six of the best, they took care to put on three extra pairs of underpants to absorb the sting of the cane. Judging by Tony Hayward’s expression this morning—that of a cur whipped to within an inch of its life—the CEO of BP made the cardinal error of going into the first part of his hearing before the House Energy Subcommittee with his backside inadequately cushioned.

The opening statements by members of the subcommittee were floggings, pure and simple; in the best traditions of this year’s show-trials of capitalist roaders on Capitol Hill, Hayward was pelted and pilloried by grandstanding politicians.  (Recall the hearings in April, if you will, of Lloyd Blankfein and his team from Goldman Sachs.) Thwack-thwack-thwack went Rep. Bart Stupak, swish-swish-swish went Rep. Henry Waxman; not even the balm applied by the Republican Joe Barton—who referred to BP’s $20 billion escrow fund as a government “shakedown” and “slush fund,” words which evoked a collective gasp from Wolf Blitzer & Co. on CNN—was salve enough for Hayward’s welts. It was hard, at this stage, not to feel sorry for the man, not to wince each time the camera panned to his puce-complexioned face.

Clearly, Hayward had decided that since he was already the grotesque devil, he may as well not make any impotent effort to be liked or loved.

And then something remarkable happened. The subcommittee broke for half an hour to vote on unrelated matters. On their return, it was clear that Hayward had not merely slipped on several additional pairs of boxer shorts, but that he’d also decided—in the protective solitude of the powder room—to do some personal and political math on a square of House loo-paper: If you’re on a hiding to nothing, you can either writhe and moan and twist and grovel, thereby inflaming further the blood-lust of your tormenters; or you can muster your stiffest upper lip, your most impassive face, your most noncommittal pedantry, your most stoical absorption of pain, and your most adamant unwillingness to commit to incriminating judgments.

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That second option was the one elected by Hayward, in a masterful, unlovable, breathtaking display of stonewalling before an increasingly irate panel. Witness the sequence in which Rep. Stupak—eager to demonstrate that his curriculum vitae isn’t confined to the matter of abortion—laid detailed criticisms at BP’s door. Hayward replied: “I think it’s too early to reach conclusions, with respect, Mr. Chairman.” Or the episode where Rep. Waxman offered his catalogue of five major BP errors, effectively exhorting Hayward to bow his noggin and mumble something like, “Mea maximissima culpa.”

Instead, Hayward said: “I’m not prepared to draw conclusions about this accident until such time as the investigations are concluded.” (A frustrated Rep. Waxman responded by saying, “You’re kicking the can as if you have nothing to do with the company.” Frustration was evident, too, in the voice of Rep. Edward Markey, as he tussled with Hayward over the precise definition of a “plume.” It was that sort of hearing.)

Viewers will have lost count of the number of times Hayward said, “I can’t comment,” or “I have no idea,” or “I don’t have enough information,” or “I wasn’t involved in the decision-making,” or that it was “too early to draw conclusions,” in response to the members’ questions.

To be fair to Hayward, how exactly should—or could—he have answered a question like this one, from Rep. Stupak: “Should there be a ban on companies that have miserable safety and environmental records?” Should he have said yes; or no; or it depends; or maybe? And would he have gained anything at all from any one of those answers? So naturally, self-protectively, he prevaricated, especially as he had already made a clear apology for the oil spill in his opening statement, and had expressed BP’s commitment to “make whole” all those who have suffered economic loss.

Mercifully, Hayward does not have the accent of a textbook English toff, or there’d be all hell to pay; he speaks, as most will have noted, with a mildly Thames-estuarine intonation, the classless speech pattern that is so thoroughly in vogue in today’s England. That didn’t stop Rep. Bruce Braley—an inane Democrat from Iowa—from turning a cheap linguistic trick and attempting to explain to Hayward what a “shakedown” meant in English “as spoken in America.” (Rep. Braley kept pressing Hayward to say whether or not the BP CEO thought the White House-mandated escrow was a “slush fund,” as the Texan Rep. Barton had earlier asserted. Hayward’s response was a dignified “no,” though his contempt for the congressman was plain for all to see—and was likely shared by many viewers.)

Click Below to Watch Tony Hayward Testify Before Congress

Video screenshot

Clearly, Hayward had decided that since he was already the grotesque devil, the bête petroliere (BP) in a Manichean morality play, he may as well not make any impotent effort to be liked or loved. And how could he have done so successfully, even if he’d tried, when CNN—in its coverage of the hearings—had a permanent window up on the screen showing footage of the burning rig, oil-slicked marshes, and goo-covered birds, in a nonstop, lurid loop of accusation? (I grew so familiar with two of the birds over the hours-long loop that I took to calling them “George” and “Martha.”)  CNN, one might safely conclude, stands for Capitalism is Not Nice. 

In the end, it is remarkable that the most newsworthy fragment to emerge from this almost totally unproductive hearing was not anything said by Hayward, the man here tied to the stake, but the “shakedown/slush fund” assertion made early on by Rep. Barton. The White House has already turned its ire on the Texan, causing him to say, later in the day, that he was sorry: We can be sure, nonetheless, that his point of view will be subjected to endless scrutiny in the days to come. Tony Hayward, no doubt, will be very grateful for that. And grateful, too, to the members of Congress who questioned him today—many of them shrill and self-aggrandizing—who pulled off the remarkable feat of transforming the CEO of BP from a complete national villain to a man who now has a measure of sympathy from many among us. 

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)