Miss. Governor's Oil Reaction Too Measured For Some

The governors of Louisiana, Alabama and Florida have been very vocal about the oil spill in the Gulf and efforts to contain it. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has been more measured in his response. Some residents wonder if it's because of his deep ties to the energy industry or his GOP presidential aspirations.

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The way a politician responds to a disaster can make or break a career, and politicians in Gulf Coast states know that better than most. The governors in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida have been very vocal about the oil slick that's creeping towards shore.

But as NPR's Tamara Keith reports from Biloxi, Mississippi's Governor Haley Barbour is taking a more laid back approach.

TAMARA KEITH: Governor Barbour stands behind a podium - no tie, the top button of his light blue shirt undone. The termed-out Republican governor is calm, relaxed even, as he repeats a message he's delivered several times in recent weeks.

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Republican, Mississippi): One thing that is harmful to us is that the news media in some parts of the country are telling people that this is already like the Exxon Valdez.

KEITH: But he says this is nothing like the Exxon Valdez, and likely never will be. Barbour is unapologetic about his political connections to the energy industry and his continued support for offshore drilling. He reminds the assembled reporters that no oil has washed up on the shores of Mississippi. In fact, he says, the oil slick is miles away.

Gov. BARBOUR: Well, let me just tell you a fact: Our waters, our barrier islands, our beaches, our golf courses are just like they were a month ago. They're just like they were before this oil well blew out.

KEITH: Now, contrast that to Florida Governor Charlie Crist yesterday in St. Petersburg, where the oil is even further away.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): I mean, let's face it, we have an oil volcano out in the Gulf of Mexico that's spewing, you know, literally hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil every single day.

KEITH: Crist, a newly minted independent in a tight Senate race, sounds a lot like the Republican governors in Louisiana and Alabama. There's a sense of urgency that hasn't let up.

Gov. CRIST: I dare say this has the potential to be the largest single environmental and economic disaster in the history of Florida. So how do you overact to that? I don't think you can.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #1: Now, here's your Pentagon Channel report.

Unidentified Man #2: Thousands of National Guard troops have been activated in both Louisiana and Alabama to support oil spill response efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.

KEITH: In Alabama, 120 National Guard soldiers are building a barrier around Dauphin Island. And in Louisiana, more than a thousand Guard members are working the response. But Mississippi doesn't get a mention in this Pentagon Channel report because, although Governor Barbour has put the National Guard on notice, he hasn't called anyone up. Why?

Gov. BARBOUR: We don't have anything for the National Guard to do.

KEITH: But not everyone is thrilled with the governor's don't worry attitude. State Representative Diane Peranich is a Democrat, but her criticism is more geographic than partisan.

State Representative DIANE PERANICH (Democrat, Mississippi): I think when you live here, your anxiety level - and you're still here from Katrina and you spent two years in a FEMA camper and the rest of your family was in FEMA campers - you have a different attitude than someone who has to manage a situation. We lived it.

KEITH: The irony here is that Governor Barbour was widely hailed as one of the heroes of Hurricane Katrina. His years as a Washington lobbyist were huge assets as he brought federal cash back to Mississippi for rebuilding. He's mentioned as a presidential prospect for 2012.

But this oil spill is an entirely different situation. Joseph Parker, a political scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi, says there's a boneyard full of politicians who misjudged disasters.

Professor JOSEPH PARKER (University of Southern Mississippi): We can only know in retrospect whether he was a genius or a buffoon. The barrier between buffoonery and genius sometimes is pretty thin, pretty thin line.

KEITH: For his part, Governor Barbour thinks it's important to keep residents from panicking.

Gov. BARBOUR: Here we've just tried to get our people on a level keel, knowing that we got something that could happen and that it could be a disaster, at worst. But also knowing that the main we got to do is have good defense, be prepared to clean up, and to not be fatalistic about it. Not be whiny.

KEITH: He says he's been praying for the best and preparing for the worst. And so far - so far - his quiet prayers have been answered.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Biloxi, Mississippi.

MONTAGNE: Now, an update on oil that has reached land. The Coast Guard says tar balls have washed up along a beach in Alabama just a few miles from the Florida state line. Tar balls have also been reported as far west as Whisky Island, off the coast of Louisiana.

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