Hating Tony Hayward

BP’s frontman on the Gulf tragedy was sidelined, yes, but he’s still a symbol of what ails us

Jaime O'Neill is an occasional contributor to SN&R.

I’m not much of a carpenter, but I have spent enough time with wood to learn the woodworker’s mantra, which is to measure twice and cut once. It’s a bit of pragmatism that can be applied to lots of things. Measure twice, cut once. Take all necessary precautions before committing yourself to a cut that may waste lumber or weaken the structure.

Precaution. The word itself has the necessary lessons built into it. There’s abundant folk wisdom of this kind, most of it ingrained in us by the time we reach middle school. “Better safe than sorry,” for instance, or “Look before you leap.” Even more commonly, there’s the Boy Scout creed, “Be prepared.”

Despite the ubiquity of such sensible notions, BP chose not to have a backup well in case of an eventuality like the one we’re all now paying for in the Gulf of Mexico. In order to save the millions a relief well would have cost, they made a corporate decision to proceed without a contingency plan, which is why we’ve seen them fumbling with Rube Goldberg solutions since the rig blew up back in April.

Measure twice, cut once. How nice it would have been if Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO, had acted in accordance with that simple notion. As we all know, Hayward was sidelined last week from running BP’s day-to-day operations in the Gulf. But judging by the man’s public demeanor since his company despoiled a big chunk of the United States, his expertise—and that doctorate in geology from the University of Edinburgh—seemed confined to stone. A man who studies rocks may be a little deaf to nuance when it comes to more sensate things.

Though removed from the public eye, Hayward is still BP’s chief exec and remains handsomely compensated, earning a couple million British pounds annually in salary and bonuses, not to mention other assorted benefits and perks. It was no wonder he wanted to get on with his life, as he told a reporter in an oft-repeated demonstration of thickheaded self-absorption.

The idea that supermen and wonder women run our corporations is a myth created by those über execs and the boards of directors that lavish rewards upon them. Time and time again, these Masters of the Universe—from Enron to Goldman Sachs to BP—reveal that they walk on feet of clay, though with an extraordinary sense of personal entitlement and self-regard.

It felt good to turn a man like Tony Hayward into a repository for all the outrage we feel. He siphoned off some of the oily anger at the desecration we’ve been witnessing. And he was generous in facilitating our hatred, displaying a tone-deafness that readily belies the vaunted intelligence of such corporate figureheads.

But the catharsis we seek in despising men like Tony Hayward is ultimately unsatisfying. We crank out such people even more efficiently than we consume the stuff they produce. And that’s no accident. We want cheap and abundant oil, for instance, and we reward those who give it to us with all the glittering prizes at our disposal—the jets, the deference and the money. In order to keep the things we want coming our way, we really don’t mind if the big shots play fast and loose with the environment, or the economy. So long as we don’t have to hear about the risks being taken, we’ll continue to elect people who demand less government regulation and fewer restrictions on corporations. We vote for people who promise to take restraints off business and industry, and we remain silent as the Supreme Court grants corporate money the power to determine the outcome of our elections.

Hatred of men like Tony Hayward may lubricate the transmission of anger about oil-coated pelicans and fuel the engine of outrage at wetlands corrupted by crude, but Hayward is just a symbol of what really ails us. Greed and ambition trump decency, morality and common sense.

So, we look before we leap, cut before we measure and ignore the simple precaution to be prepared. When the real price must be paid for such recklessness, we turn our ire on the men who took the rewards for doing exactly what we were rewarding them so handsomely to do.