During the blitz of World War II, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill went into the streets of London to stand with his people against the Nazis. But nowadays, our leaders are mostly absent in times of travail. After 9/11, George W. Bush took three full days to make it to New York, waiting until the coast was clear before claiming his photo-op with the firefighters and cops and rescue workers at Ground Zero. And when Katrina devastated New Orleans, Bush opted for his famous flyover, viewing the suffering from a the comfort of Airport One at 2,500 feet.
Last week, Barack Obama continued the tradition. It seemed the president just couldn’t find the time to take puddle jumper down to Massey Coal’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia to comfort the families of those who died in the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years. Nor did Michelle Obama or even Joe Biden, who is talked about as the the administration’s liaison to working-class whites.
The governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, was on hand as the futile rescue attempts took place, but but his state is such a pawn in the hands of the coal industry that it was hard to take him seriously. Today, at least, he did take the step of appointing Davitt McAteer, a longtime reformer who headed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration under Clinton, to oversee an independent investigation into the disaster. As I wrote last week, McAteer, who headed a similar investigation after the 2006 Sago disaster killed 12 miners, is without question the best man for this job. But his work will only have meaning if the government implements–and enforces–the safety improvements he recommends.
Obama, too, has promised launch an investigation into the causes of the mine explosion. But there already have been investigations into Massey Energy’s violation of federal safety laws. This was an especially dreadful disaster because the U.S. government, which had been equipped with mine safety laws at the insistance of reformers, wouldn’t adequately enforce them, allowing Massey to drag its feet and rack up violations until the inevitable happened. That mine was just waiting to blow up, and the feds effectively stood by and permitted a greedy company put profits ahead of its workers’ lives.
Instead of an investigation, Obama ought to call a federal grand jury to weigh criminal penalties against the owners and top officers of the company. And he ought to have taken the time to personally visit the place where 29 men died because the government–including his own administration, as well as his predecessor’s–failed to do its job.
Obama, like Bush before him, might have taken a lesson from what Lyndon Johnson did in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Betsy back in 1965–as described in this brief passage from the Louisiana Weekly:
On September 10, 1965, the day after Hurricane Betsy plowed through southeastern Louisiana, President Lyndon Johnson flew to New Orleans. He went to the people, to shelters where evacuees were gathered, to neighborhoods all over the city. There was no electricity and, so that people could see and hear him at one shelter, he took a flashlight, shined it into his face and said into a megaphone, “My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson. I am your president. I am here to make sure you have the help you need.”