President George HW Bush didn’t come to Alaska for our oil spill,
perhaps because of his close ties to the industry.

He sent Dan Quayle, who didn’t help.

Drilled oil good spilled oil bad

As Vice President Dan Quayle stepped gingerly across the boardwalk that was specially built to spare his shoes from Exxon's spilled crude, you couldn't help thinking about some of the ironies surrounding the spill.

Quayle is a man, after all, who rode to the electoral anonymity of the vice presidency aboard a campaign fueled with guilt by association. Bush and Quayle tied Mike Dukakis to race prejudice and fear with the bonds of Willie Horton; they tied him to fear of liberal elitism with the rope of the ACLU; and they tied him to the growing fear of environmental Armageddon with a slippery line from Boston Harbor.

And yet, with all that practice, neither George Bush or his boyish veep has been able make the connection between the the spill disaster and the greed and neglect that allowed it. Neither has been willing to stand up in public and say that the frightful failure in Prince William Sound has changed the rules.

Neither can break his habit of reflexive genuflection to the oil industry. They repeat the catechism again and again: "Drilled oil good, spilled oil bad; drilled oil good, spilled oil bad."

Imagine, if you can, what a Lee Atwater would do with the Exxon spill disaster.

Atwater (now chairman of the Republican National Committee) was the architect of the hateful campaign that introduced Americans to the frightening face of Willie Horton and to the "card-carrying" members of the ACLU. Put him in charge of telling voters about Exxon's responsibilities for the spill, and you may be sure nobody would overlook basic items like the fact that Exxon weakened its safety procedures to save money in the same year it was posting a $5.6 billion profit.

With Atwater in charge of the information campaign, we might get as close at look at Joe Hazelwood's drinking record as we did at Willie Horton's criminal record. We'd lavish the same video attention on Port Valdez as we did on Boston Harbor. And instead of sneering at "card carrying members" of civil liberties organizations, maybe we'd get to talk for a while about profit-pocketing executives. Maybe then there'd be some discussion of candidates smiling while they cash their oil contributions.

You will hear voices crying out now that we mustn't "rush to judgment" about the disaster -- and that whatever happens, we must not do anything to "punish the oil industry" for this event. I will bet you a week's pay that a majority of the voices speaking out against punishing oil companies belong to people who favor the death penalty for punishing human transgressors. You may chalk this one up in the "irony" category, too.

But the fact is that I more or less agree with the Chamber of Commerce presidents and VECO cheerleaders on that one. Punishment must be reserved for actual culpability: to Joe Hazelwood and crew where they failed; to Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. where its response was negligent; and to Exxon as the agency responsible for the activities that have killed and stained and degraded in Prince William Sound.

As for the industry as a whole, punishment is the wrong response. Vigilance is the reaction their behavior demands. They must be watched and regulated and taxed and required to behave in the public interest, because we know now that left to their own they will of course only act for themselves.

We should have known this. We forgot. We must not forget again.

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