No Salvage Contract for Derelict SS Obama

Talk of salvaging the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency has been a favorite theme this past week from Reuters to the Wall Street Journal. Salvaging this presidency is silly talk.

In the maritime business, salvaging a distressed vessel -- either wrecked or in danger of foundering -- is only done when the prospects of recovery are at least marginally probable with enough residual value to warrant the risks.

Farley Mowat, with The Serpent’s Coil  in 1961, wrote the defining chronicle of perhaps the most dramatic North Atlantic salvage saga. Two ocean-going tugs from Foundation Maritime in Halifax -- the Foundation Josephine and Foundation Lillian -- in September 1948 rescued the freighter SS Leicester, a WWII-vintage liberty ship, en route from London to New York crippled and abandoned in the teeth of that September’s hurricane VII, eventually towing the Leicester to Bermuda.

The two Foundation tugs didn’t know for certain where the crippled Leicester was drifting.  For ten days, Foundation Josephine’s crews searched thousands of square miles before finding the abandoned hull, listing badly with ballast shifted, no power, and still buffeted by storm force winds and mountainous seas.

Of course for an ocean salvage to succeed, the vessel needs to be seaworthy -- able to be towed to a safe port -- and the salvage crews fearless, skilled, and insane.

Not so for SS Obama. This vessel is not seaworthy, its hull of meager break-up value. Rescue crews will risk neither their lives nor reputations for such a hopeless enterprise. And especially a salvage venture is moot where the ship owner doesn’t believe salvage is necessary, and wouldn’t sacrifice any of his riches to do so, even if it were.

Why was salvaging the Leicester attractive? Not for the intrinsic value of Bethlehem plate steel, welds, and rivets. Nor its cargo ballast of gravel and stone. But postwar liberty ships were cheap to acquire, cheap to run, uncomplicated to operate, assuring years more of voyage profitability far exceeding initial outlays. Leicester’s value was its future, neither its past nor present. SS Obama has no future, no bookings, no cargo, no revenue.

The intrinsic value of SS Obama was and always has been the novelty of identity -- as the first black president -- with it so many alluring but untested promises. Graceful sheer but little else. Stylistically, SS Obama may still have a premium assigned through its historic juncture, but little enduring substance except for the distress and damaging wakes left in its lee as news of it drifting falls to the bottom of the pile of wireless telexes.

When ships are launched, optimism abounds, promises only to be fulfilled, possible failures and disasters never broached.  Invocations accompanying keels splashing for the first time -- no matter if the hull belongs to a guided missile frigate, a passenger ferry, a Caribbean cruise liner, a lobster boat, or a lowly liberty ship freighter that took less than a week to build -- are the same, “May she bring fair weather, good fortune, honor and glory to all who sail her”. The SS Obama was no exception.

When the SS Obama was launched in 2008, Obama hagiographers, from both academia and bestseller reading lists -- including luminaries such as presidential chronicler Robert Dallek and Civil War scribe James McPherson -- declared that Obama, while still a presidential wannabe, was in the same orbit as Lincoln, FDR, and JFK.

Dallek and McPherson were joined by more than 200 distinguished historians, from across the academy -- the Ivies, liberal arts colleges, state universities -- in tossing these orange blossoms at Obama’s feet:

But it is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack. He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness -- or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. Like Kennedy, he also inspires young people who see him as a great exception in a political world that seems mired in cynicism and corruption.

Well, despite the recent silence of these erstwhile breathless telegraphers, we know the rest of the story.

The promise of an adroit cultural navigator leading us to a unified post-racial America was but a mirage on the horizon.

The promise of remaking cynical and corrupt politics displaying grace without animus into a “We the People”-first legislative world, was replaced by an enemies list, using the IRS to punish political foes, obstruction of justice, all-purpose paranoia, demonization of unfriendly media, serotonin deprivation, and pathological lying.

Where this president has neither interest nor ability to engage anyone but his own reflected image. A president whose only triumph was being elected, content with the celebration of his ship’s launching, indifferent to its voyage.

Salvage a derelict or an apparition? Silly talk, indeed.

Talk of salvaging the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency has been a favorite theme this past week from Reuters to the Wall Street Journal. Salvaging this presidency is silly talk.

In the maritime business, salvaging a distressed vessel -- either wrecked or in danger of foundering -- is only done when the prospects of recovery are at least marginally probable with enough residual value to warrant the risks.

Farley Mowat, with The Serpent’s Coil  in 1961, wrote the defining chronicle of perhaps the most dramatic North Atlantic salvage saga. Two ocean-going tugs from Foundation Maritime in Halifax -- the Foundation Josephine and Foundation Lillian -- in September 1948 rescued the freighter SS Leicester, a WWII-vintage liberty ship, en route from London to New York crippled and abandoned in the teeth of that September’s hurricane VII, eventually towing the Leicester to Bermuda.

The two Foundation tugs didn’t know for certain where the crippled Leicester was drifting.  For ten days, Foundation Josephine’s crews searched thousands of square miles before finding the abandoned hull, listing badly with ballast shifted, no power, and still buffeted by storm force winds and mountainous seas.

Of course for an ocean salvage to succeed, the vessel needs to be seaworthy -- able to be towed to a safe port -- and the salvage crews fearless, skilled, and insane.

Not so for SS Obama. This vessel is not seaworthy, its hull of meager break-up value. Rescue crews will risk neither their lives nor reputations for such a hopeless enterprise. And especially a salvage venture is moot where the ship owner doesn’t believe salvage is necessary, and wouldn’t sacrifice any of his riches to do so, even if it were.

Why was salvaging the Leicester attractive? Not for the intrinsic value of Bethlehem plate steel, welds, and rivets. Nor its cargo ballast of gravel and stone. But postwar liberty ships were cheap to acquire, cheap to run, uncomplicated to operate, assuring years more of voyage profitability far exceeding initial outlays. Leicester’s value was its future, neither its past nor present. SS Obama has no future, no bookings, no cargo, no revenue.

The intrinsic value of SS Obama was and always has been the novelty of identity -- as the first black president -- with it so many alluring but untested promises. Graceful sheer but little else. Stylistically, SS Obama may still have a premium assigned through its historic juncture, but little enduring substance except for the distress and damaging wakes left in its lee as news of it drifting falls to the bottom of the pile of wireless telexes.

When ships are launched, optimism abounds, promises only to be fulfilled, possible failures and disasters never broached.  Invocations accompanying keels splashing for the first time -- no matter if the hull belongs to a guided missile frigate, a passenger ferry, a Caribbean cruise liner, a lobster boat, or a lowly liberty ship freighter that took less than a week to build -- are the same, “May she bring fair weather, good fortune, honor and glory to all who sail her”. The SS Obama was no exception.

When the SS Obama was launched in 2008, Obama hagiographers, from both academia and bestseller reading lists -- including luminaries such as presidential chronicler Robert Dallek and Civil War scribe James McPherson -- declared that Obama, while still a presidential wannabe, was in the same orbit as Lincoln, FDR, and JFK.

Dallek and McPherson were joined by more than 200 distinguished historians, from across the academy -- the Ivies, liberal arts colleges, state universities -- in tossing these orange blossoms at Obama’s feet:

But it is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack. He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness -- or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. Like Kennedy, he also inspires young people who see him as a great exception in a political world that seems mired in cynicism and corruption.

Well, despite the recent silence of these erstwhile breathless telegraphers, we know the rest of the story.

The promise of an adroit cultural navigator leading us to a unified post-racial America was but a mirage on the horizon.

The promise of remaking cynical and corrupt politics displaying grace without animus into a “We the People”-first legislative world, was replaced by an enemies list, using the IRS to punish political foes, obstruction of justice, all-purpose paranoia, demonization of unfriendly media, serotonin deprivation, and pathological lying.

Where this president has neither interest nor ability to engage anyone but his own reflected image. A president whose only triumph was being elected, content with the celebration of his ship’s launching, indifferent to its voyage.

Salvage a derelict or an apparition? Silly talk, indeed.