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David Brooks May Seem Reasonable, but He's With Barton Underneath

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Don't trust David Brooks. He makes a nice appearance, speaks softly, sometimes even persuasively, and makes like a reasonable person. Occasionally, he is. But more often, he spouts nonsense.

Brooks's latest nonsense was uttered Friday night (6/18) during his weekly news analysis on the PBS NewsHour. The subject was Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton's outrageous apology on behalf of BP for Obama's $20 billion "shakedown" of that poor, troubled company. Barton, a leading recipient of oil money, later retracted and apologized for that apology under severe pressure from, among many others, leaders of his own party. When Jim Lehrer asked Brooks if he was as upset with Barton's apologizing to BP as were so many other people, Brooks replied that he wasn't.

While it was "politically an unbelievably stupid thing, and substantively it was two-thirds of an unbelievably stupid thing," Brooks said, there was "a kernel of truth at the core" of what Barton said." That kernel was "that we are a nation of laws."

Those laws, Brooks reminded us, protect the unpopular and "even people who do bad things," besides forcing the bad and the negligent "to pay and compensate those who were damaged." But, he added, what the president did "when he very publicly and very brutally strong-armed BP into setting aside this $20 billion [in an escrow account to pay for damages] is, he went around those laws," causing Brooks to worry about "the erosion of the rule of law."

Unsurprisingly, Mark Shields, the NewsHour's liberal commentator who appears alongside Brooks, disagreed. Shields detected no brutality. Further, he pointed out that BP had long ago agreed to pay for all the damages. Most important for this discussion, Shields observed that BP could have gone "the legal due process route" and "lawyered up" to fight Obama's escrow fund had it chosen to do so.

Which is, of course, absolutely true, and a point I would like to expand on. May I remind people of a couple of times in the last century, not necessarily the only ones, when presidents have acted to force businesses to do what those presidents thought was best for the country during national emergencies, and that businesses have fought back -- and sometimes won -- by using the very law that young David Brooks, who was not around then, fears is now being so brutally eroded by a strong-arming Obama.

For example, what American who was old enough to look at pictures in 1944 can ever forget one of the most memorable photographs of that year in the midst of World War II. It showed two American soldiers bodily carrying a defiant Sewell Avery, one of the nation's business leaders, out of his office like a sack of potatoes. Avery was chairman of Montgomery Ward, then one of America's largest retail companies. He was carried out after he defied an order by the War Labor Board to renew a union contract. Although Avery left shouting "to hell with the government," the Commerce Department, under orders from President Roosevelt, took over the company and ran it for more than a year. Montgomery Ward contested the action in court but lost. However, the rule of law, far from being eroded, was tested and came out a winner.

As it was in a case with a very different kind of ending in the spring of 1952 after President Truman seized the nation's major steel companies. The president acted when the companies rejected wage increases proposed by the Korean War-era Wage Stabilization Board unless they were allowed to raise prices more than the government thought proper. The companies promptly went to court, the courts acted swiftly, and the president, who announced the seizure on April 8, was shocked by a stinging 6-to-3 rebuff from a Supreme Court composed of five FDR appointees and four of Truman's own on June 2, less than two months later. "I don't see how a court made up of so-called 'Liberals' could do what that court did to me," which was to find the seizure unconstitutional, the president later said. I think even Mr. Brooks would agree that the rule of law was not eroded in this case.

Brooks is not, of course, the only conservative who accuses President Obama of going around the law in the BP case. But these examples are a reminder that he certainly did not, that BP had every right (as well as more than ample resources) to legally contest the president's action, but chose not to do so. It was surely a wiser choice for the corporation Americans currently most love to hate, especially since BP apparently wants to continue selling gasoline here.