It's easy to make fun of a governor from Mississippi whose name is Haley, who speaks with a heavy Southern accent, comes from Yazoo City, and has called himself "just a fat redneck."
That's the same Haley Barbour I remember from the bar at the George Street Grocery in Jackson, Mississippi, where state legislators, lobbyists, and reporters hung out when I was working there for United Press International 30 years ago.
Barbour was friendly, unassuming, and smart. You could tell he was going places. Which he did, becoming a big-time lobbyist before he was elected governor of Mississippi.
Barbour got beat up in June by some newspaper and television smarties like Jon Stewart for saying the Mississippi Coast was not ankle-deep in oil because of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. The governor noted that only a few tar balls had been found in the eight weeks since the leak, and tar balls were not uncommon on Gulf beaches.
Stewart and his audience found this hilariously funny and out of touch. But in this case Stewart is the one who is out of touch.
The oil leak may prove devastating to the ecosystem for years, and it may wash up on the beaches in huge globs next week or next month. By the time this column is published in July the beaches could look a lot different. But Barbour was talking about the present and the media coverage of the story in the first eight weeks. Tourism is about today and tomorrow if you live in Memphis or Jackson or Nashville and are trying to decide whether to cancel a reservation in Biloxi, Gulf Shores, or Pensacola Beach. He was speaking the truth when he said Mississippi's beaches were clean.
I was on the Gulf Coast at the time Barbour made his comments. I spent four days driving along the beaches of Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle, swimming in the Gulf, and eating as much fried shrimp and oysters as I could hold.
All in the name of journalistic research. Somebody had to do it.
I visited some Memphis College of Art students, who are more qualified than I am to speak to the question of oil on the beach. A group of 30 students and faculty spent nine days in June on Horn Island, a barrier island off the coast of Ocean Springs made famous by Mississippi artist Walter Anderson. They lived in tents on the Gulf side of the island, and ate their meals under canopies on the bay side. They are visual people to begin with, nobody's fools, about as far from being PR flacks for British Petroleum as you can get, and I daresay in a better position than Jon Stewart to judge the condition of the beach. In nine days, trip leader Don DuMont told me, they found a few tar balls and some wreckage from the oil rig. That's it. No oil slicks. No oil-soaked wildlife. No oil mats. No foul smell.
Some oil was on the beach at Gulf Shores, although not as much as the Biloxi Sun-Herald implied when it captioned a photo of piles of seaweed as "the dark brown stain of beached oil." But in June the water was clear, as it was at Horn Island and at Pensacola Beach.
What was ridiculous were the hundreds of workers in orange vests, boots, and gloves examining each tar ball they found as if it were a piece of nuclear waste. A troop of Boy Scouts with rakes could have cleaned up a mile of Gulf Shores beach in half a day.
This is not to say things won't get worse. But Haley Barbour got a raw deal. He is the governor, remember, who led his state's official response to Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out whole towns in Mississippi and killed people. Perhaps only those who have undergone a similar experience have the right to judge him.