woody_zimmerman_118_2007This week the world watched the heart-warming conclusion of an internationally-sponsored rescue effort that delivered 33 Chilean miners from their two-month imprisonment in a collapsed mine, over two thousand feet below the earth’s surface. Cheer after cheer rang out as miners emerged, one by one, from a custom-made iron capsule, specially designed to traverse a non-linear bore-hole that reached down to where the men were trapped. President Sebastian Piñera was on hand to greet and embrace each man who stepped from the capsule after surviving for 69 days in what could have become their underground tomb.

Luis Urzua, 54, the shift supervisor, was the last miner to emerge. Tremendous ovations went up from the waiting crowd as he stepped from the capsule. President Piñera hailed him as a “great captain,” as it was Mr. Urzua who organized the trapped men into an underground community and kept their morale high as they waited the initial 17 days for contact to be made from aboveground – then the remaining 52 days, until six technicians were finally lowered into the mine in the specially built capsule to assist in the rescue. Tears came to my eyes as I watched Mr. Urzua embrace the president and say, "We have done what the entire world was waiting for…” What a marvelous testimony to the human spirit’s resilience in the face of adversity!

Some of those tears, I must admit, were tears of envy and frustration, as I wondered what it must be like to have such leadership at a time of national crisis. It is hard to avoid contrasting the wonderful spirit of international cooperation in the Chilean crisis, which included technical help from all over the world, to the Obama administration’s refusal of international oil-sweeping assistance – from boats standing by – during the months when oil leaked, uncontrollably, from a ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.

During that crisis, our president and his government acted as part-bully, part-extortionist, and part-obstructionist – turning away all offers of foreign help to keep the oil from reaching mainland shores – while BP engineers and technicians worked round the clock to seal off the wellhead. Mr. Obama said his main job was finding out “whose ass to kick” – thus furnishing important insight into his view of leadership and his understanding of both the corporate and public sector worlds.

As if to reinforce his “bully” credentials, Mr. Obama issued a six-month freeze on all new deep-water drilling, thereby closing down operations which had employed over 10,000 workers in the Gulf region. Mr. Obama twice re-instated the drilling moratorium, after federal courts ordered it cancelled on grounds that administration lawyers had not made a credible case. The courts saw no connection between the specific BP incident and the safety and soundness of other wells either proposed or in process of being drilled. Mr. Obama flicked these rulings aside like he would a fly landing on his lectern. One commentator likened it to a driving-moratorium because of a single automobile-accident.

All during the mine-crisis, President Piñera made frequent visits to the site of the rescue operation. When first contact was finally made with the trapped miners, he spoke personally to the shift captain, Luis Urzua, assuring him that the country would not abandon him and his men. As noted above, the president was there to greet each rescued man who emerged from the capsule. He capped the flawless operation with a moving speech in which he said, “…when Chile unites in the face of adversity, it can achieve great things.” Who could doubt it, as the last miner stepped out to freedom?

By contrast, Mr. Obama waited several weeks after the Deepwater Horizon platform’s explosion before even visiting the Gulf of Mexico – strolling around beaches in his shirtsleeves while inspecting tar-balls from oil that had washed ashore. He did not engage with the technicians who were addressing the leaking well and trying to keep the oil from reaching the shore. Offers of international help to sweep up the leaked oil were ignored, allowing some beaches to become fouled. Indeed, the obstruction was so obvious that Mainstream Media reporters began to suspect that the president wanted the oil to reach the shore – some 50 miles from Deepwater Horizon well – in order to maximize the political shock-value of oil-covered birds and petroleum-fouled grass on Gulf beaches.

The peculiar mine rescue-capsule was designed and built in Berlin, Pennsylvania. Experts from various nations helped drill a tunnel – deliberately bent to avoid dangerous virgin earth sections – down to where the men were trapped. Other experts fashioned the cable apparatus by which they were eventually lifted to freedom. President Piñera praised this international help and did everything he could to enable the rescue, assigning one of his cabinet ministers exclusively to oversee and assist the effort. He declared that Chile would learn from the accident, but he did not curtail mining to “protect” people who make their livings that way. All efforts were directed entirely toward rescuing those men.

Mr. Obama’s only substantive actions in the oil-spill crisis were: (1) imposing the drilling moratorium; and (2) arm-twisting BP into setting up a $20 billion fund to compensate victims of the spill. (The “victims” included people put out of work by the president’s drilling moratorium.) Most foreign help was rejected because of union pressure to keep the operation entirely “American.”

Like millions of Americans, I was embarrassed when the President of the United States delivered his infamous ass-kicking comment to the world. Is this what presidential leadership has sunk to in the United States? Place that coarseness next to President Piñera’s inspiring comments about the boundless capabilities of the Chilean people. Which kind of crisis leadership would you rather have?

At the time of the Gulf oil spill, I said that this single incident might mark either the death or the rebirth of the Obama presidency, depending on how it was handled. Mr. Obama’s complete bugling of it is why you hear no politicians – not even Mr. Obama himself – extolling the wondrously efficient handling of this ecological emergency. The Mainstream Media beat President Bush to a pulp over Hurricane Katrina, the effects of which were mainly bungled by Louisiana state and local officials. But the media are strangely mute about the Gulf oil spill. Six months later, one would hardly know it happened, while TV “human interest” stories on Katrina victims are still being run, five years after those events. Journalists “celebrate” Katrina’s political usefulness. But the Gulf oil spill hurt their guy, so it has gone down the Memory Hole.

Memory hole or not, Mr. Obama messed up, big time, on this one. The great media silence tells all. You didn’t have to understand President Piñera’s Spanish to know what real leadership looks like.