That headline comes from John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Bill Haydon, a character given to dry sarcasm among other vices, utters the words upon leaving a meeting in which there had been much posing and preening for show, but little point:
“Stupid bloody cabaret,” Bill remarked, waving vaguely at the mothers. “Percy’s getting more insufferable every day.”
That phrase entered my mind as I read in The Wall Street Journal about the ritual conducted in Congress yesterday when the boss of BP was called on the carpet:
Mr. Hayward stuck to his plan. He sat for hours on Thursday, alone at a witness table, parrying questions from indignant members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a deliberate monotone.
Over and over, he said he wasn’t involved in the decisions preceding the accident and declined to speculate on causes until investigations were complete.
Summoning executives of companies caught up in financial or legal trouble to receive televised scoldings is a ritual of U.S. politics. Detroit auto titans, Wall Street bankers, and the head of Japanese auto giant Toyota Motor Corp. have all done time in Congress’s dock as lawmakers looked for someone to blame for the calamities of the past two years.
Such proceedings are not designed to accomplish anything, beyond the public embarrassment of the guest of honor. Never mind that those subjected to such treatment so often richly deserve the treatment. The whole thing strikes me as inappropriate in a country devoted to the rule of law.
If we wish to prosecute, haul the guy into court. If we wish to make BP pay, make them cough up a huge amount of money. Which we had already done, and appropriately so. If we need to obtain information from them, this is hardly the forum for doing so. Quite the opposite, in fact. A fact-finding gathering would have the people there who could actually answer the question, and investigators better equipped to ask them than these politicoes.
This is about lawmakers preening before the cameras, exhibiting their righteous indignation to the folks back home. This is the modern equivalent of the public stocks, and the congressmen are the ones in the crowd who want to be seen as the first to heave a rotten tomato, or a dead cat, or a stone at the person thus restrained.
Mind you, I feel no pity for Mr. Howard. This is what he gets paid the big bucks for. What disturbs me is, what an inadequate way this is to deal with the problem. It makes my country’s system of addressing problems look tawdry and empty.
I’m probably going to displease my Democratic friends with this one, because as I read further down in the story, I see they were the main ones showing off their indignation. But that was just today. Some other day, with some other subject, it would be all about Republicans trying to humiliate someone they were angry with.
It’s the process that seems inconsistent with a rational way of dealing with this horrendous problem. And like so many things that I find objectionable in our society, this is about television. Remove the cameras, and this event wouldn’t be happening — or would be very different. Actually, I take that back. It’s not television per se. In an earlier era, they’d have been showing off for the newsreel cameras. It’s just that with television, constituents with nothing better to do can watch it in real time.
You doubt that it was pointless, beyond venting emotions? Then tell me — what effective action did the session lead to? What WAS the point? What has been done, as a result of that show?
You want me to tell you what the real-world consequence of that grilling was? BP’s stock went up, because its CEO “survived” the process. Really.
You know what I’d like to see? All these members of Congress in their chamber, seriously debating a real, sensible Energy Policy, one that helps us move beyond dependence on the BPs of the world. That would be useful. But I guess that’s just too hard.