The Joe and Tony Show

What we learned from Tony Hayward and Joe Barton at the BP hearings.

Also in Slate, John Dickerson looks at the fallout from Rep. Joe Barton’s blunder.

Like most chief executives, BP CEO Tony Hayward has mastered the art of saying very little very carefully. At Thursday’s hearing before a House committee, he delivered a spectacular performance, describing decisions he was not involved in, knowledge he did not have, conclusions he was unprepared to make, and judgments he was not ready to render.

“I am not a drilling engineer,” he said at several points. “I am not an oceanographic scientist,” he said at another. “I’m not a cement engineer, I’m afraid,” he lamented. Even the people he brought with him were defined by what they didn’t know. Before responding to one question, Hayward consulted with a technical adviser, then turned back to the microphone. The adviser was “not a cement expert,” so neither one of them could answer.

If the purpose of congressional investigations is to expose and inform, then the purpose of congressional hearings is to obfuscate and entertain. Thursday’s hearing—officially titled “The Role of BP in the Deepwater Horizon Explosion and Oil Spill” and featuring Hayward as the sole witness—did not disappoint. Like all great performers, however, Hayward had some help: the cast of the committee itself, most notably Rep. Joe Barton, who almost stole the show with his dramatic apology, retraction, and clarification.

As usual, the opening statements helped the audience separate the heroes from the villains. Actually, in this hearing, everyone knew who the villain was. He was the heavy-lidded CEO sitting in the witness chair, wearing a double-vented navy blue suit. He knew his role: Show no emotion. Do not react. Just sit there and take it as each member of the committee competes to see who can give you more hell.

Which is exactly what happened, for the most part. “BP has been before this committee many times,” said Rep. John Dingell, who has been in Congress since before Hayward was born and is the longest-serving member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Rarely has it been a pleasant meeting.” Rep. Mike Doyle scolded Hayward for not doing his homework, for failing to answer the questions the committee asked him in a letter sent before the hearing. Rep. Mike Ross began his statement by announcing how many millions of gallons of oil had been spilled since the hearing started. (When it was his turn to ask questions, four hours later, Ross provided an update.)

The glaring exception to this hate-in was Barton’s apology for the Obama administration’s “shakedown” of BP. This was not according to script. There was also an underappreciated moment of semi-support from Rep. Parker Griffith, who let it be known that, contrary to what several of his colleagues were saying, the oil spill was not the worst environmental disaster in American history. That would be … cigarettes, which kill 60,000 Americans each year. New corporate slogan: “BP: Not as Bad for You as Tobacco.”

Once the questions finally began—more than two hours after the hearing started and after a protestor had been removed from the room—everyone’s role clarified. The Republicans on the subcommittee, who number eight, think BP has been very bad. The Democrats, who number 13, think BP has been very, very bad. Hayward, who sat alone at the witness table, agrees that something very bad has happened. He’s just not sure about  BP’s part in it. He’d like to withhold judgment for the moment, thank you.

Thus began several hours of quiet, polite evasiveness. Did BP cut corners on safety? “I think it’s too early to reach a conclusion on that,” Hayward said. Has BP changed its practices? “We’ve engaged in systematic change” for several years. Could you please speak directly into the microphone? Thank you. Was this accident preventable? “I believe all accidents are preventable.” Who is responsible for the failures of the rig? “That is what our investigation is going to determine.” Is today Thursday? A trick question! “It is Thursday,” Hayward said, almost defensively.

Through it all, Hayward remained unfazed, and his Britishisms—decisions are not made, they are “taken”; BP does not try, it “endeavors”—made him sound courteous. “I realize that we speak the same language, but it’s not always the same language,” said Rep. Bruce Braley, eliciting an expressive blink from the witness. But Braley was not trying to understand Hayward; he was trying to make sure Hayward understood Barton. Did Hayward know the term “shakedown”? Was he familiar with the phrase “slush fund”? He may as well have asked, “Can you believe this Barton guy?”

After his opening statement—in fact, shortly after 10 a.m.—Barton was conspicuously absent. He finally returned to the hearing at 3:08 p.m. with two cans of Diet Dr. Pepper and a lock of hair spilling over his forehead. He looked as if he was having a rough day. (He was.) Two minutes later, the photographers noticed him, and they all but drowned out Hayward—something about how “BP operates to a global standard”—as they captured his arrival. When the chair recognized him a few moments later, his questions were subdued. You could tell his heart wasn’t in it.

By that time, there was bipartisan agreement on two matters: Barton had gone too far. And Hayward hadn’t gone nearly far enough. Rep. Bart Stupak, the subcommittee’s chairman, spoke for his colleagues when he told Hayward he was “extremely frustrated with your lack of candor and inability to answer any questions.” It wasn’t a question, so Hayward didn’t respond.

Like  Slate  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.