By Cristina Silva, Saint Petersburg Times
Lambasted by charges that his response to the gulf oil spill comes across as emotionally flat, President Barack Obama has made repeated vows to stand by the victims “until they are made whole.”
His ambitious promise now stands as the rhetoric of choice among political leaders looking to sympathize with those affected by the environmental and financial crisis. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry and Gov. Charlie Crist have made near identical pledges and a trio of Democratic congressmen demanded oil giant BP postpone $10 billion in dividend payments to stockholders until “the people of the gulf (are) made whole.”
Problem is, what does it mean?
”That is the one question I have been asking for five weeks,” said Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, who fears the sheets of oil sliding toward the shores of his Alabama tourist haven will bring new financial hardships after weeks of canceled hotel reservations and half-empty seafood shacks. “That is the one question we need to know before we can move forward.”
Politicians are well aware of the power of words.
Obama, a legal scholar with a penchant for headline-grabbing speeches, hasn’t elaborated on his definition of “made whole,” but his repetition suggests he thinks it is a good message. It means he wants to help. It means he cares. But, as with many political messages, “made whole” has more than one layer.
In legal jargon, “made whole” implies full restitution. A stolen laptop is replaced. Hospital bills are paid. A cracked windshield is repaired.
But the Gulf of Mexico crisis likely won’t be so easily resolved. Some losses could be hard to prove in court or even single out, creating a complicated web of cause and effect that might not immediately produce a culprit, said economic and legal scholars.
”What (Obama) said is true. They (BP) are going to be responsible for the damage they did,” said Fred Levin, a trial lawyer in Pensacola. “The question is, what is the damage they did?”
In other words, will those indirectly hurt by the oil spill be “made whole,” too? Or does the promise only apply to the victims who can successfully make their case in court?
Consider some potential ramifications. If affected business owners can no longer afford to send their children to private schools, should the schools file a claim? If the private schools hire fewer teachers because of declining enrollment, do the unemployed teachers get help? And if those teachers then can no longer afford to buy quality meat from the local supermarket, how does the supermarket prove its losses are tied to the oil spill?
It’s simply not clear, said Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law at Wayne State University in Detroit.
”To the extent you are talking about just the cleanup, yes, BP is on the hook, but to the extent that you are saying we are going to return these communities to what they were, the law does not appear to extend that far,” he said. “While it is couched in legal terms, this is really more of a political promise than a legal assertion.”
Wordsmiths countered “made whole” is not an abstract concept.
”To ‘make whole’ means exactly what it says, meaning not to kind of prop you up, not to give you some aid, but to put you back precisely where you were,” said Paul JJ Payack , president of the Global Language Monitor based in Austin, Texas, which analyzes speech. “It is a very precise choice of words and they know it.”
BP so far has paid $49 million to individuals or small businesses through its claims process and sent out roughly 18,000 checks, spokesman Max McGahan said.
”We have said we will compensate individuals and businesses in full for whatever damages or loss of income has resulted from the oil spill. We have made that commitment very clearly,” McGahan said.
He declined to address the “made whole” pledge.