Return of the Nattering Nabobs

Clive Crook, writing in today’s Financial Times, rightly warns the British commentariat against complaining about the perceived anti-British tone of criticism of BP. Let us hope that his advice is taken to heart, in contrast to the switch in tone taken by President Obama’s administration last week in response to media criticism that he was failing to express the appropriate outrage (see last week’s post, Channeling Calvin Coolidge).

The ersatz brouhaha about the temperature of the president’s response reminded us of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who, courtesy of William Safire, called the media “nattering nabobs of negativism.”  He was fond of this sort of rhetoric.  He also called another group “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history” but the reason he springs to mind is that Agnew was, until their relationship soured, a very effective hatchet man for President Nixon, taking on the president’s opponents vigorously  while allowing Nixon to appear as the leader/statesman.

One can’t quite picture Vice President Biden in this role, but perhaps another member of the US cabinet or White House staff could have performed this vital role in order to give the nabobs their outrage while enabling President Obama to be the forceful but calm leader.  This dual response model runs counter to most expert opinion about the importance of speaking with one voice  in a crisis but the challenges of very big crises, in our opinion, require a “palette” of communications styles in response to a diversity of psychological needs among different stakeholders.  If these styles can be carefully coordinated, there are sometimes powerful benefits, benefits incidentally that would also have been available if BP had activated Chairman Svanberg in coordination with CEO Tony Hayward.  Perhaps there is yet time.

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