Over the next 18 months, the myth of the “liberal” press will be tested yet again, this time in coverage of the Republican establishment’s attempted coronation of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. Editors and producers at major news organizations eventually must confront the fact that Mr. Bush’s life did not begin with his first successful campaign in 1994. Critical decisions will be made about how to assess the putative front-runner, who, according to various credible polls, would win the Presidency if the election were held today.
What resources will news executives devote to the excavation of Mr. Bush’s past? Will intrepid teams of investigative journalists parachute into sunny Houston to research the details of his checkered career in the oil business? Will reporters from metropolitan dailies and national newsweeklies spend months tracking down lurid rumors about his personal behavior, dating back to his “childhood,” as Mr. Bush puts it? Will they demand answers about his draft record and his induction into the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War?
When Bill Clinton took the lead in the Democratic primary race in 1992-in fact, well before he had won a single delegate-he found himself enduring intense examination of his public and private record. The parallels between Mr. Bush and the man who defeated his father are striking, no matter how distasteful such comparisons may be to him and his Republican supporters.
Mr. Bush’s opponents within his own party may not wait for the media to discover his vulnerabilities. Like Mr. Clinton’s Democratic rivals in 1992, other competitors for the Republican nomination have whispered that Mr. Bush cannot withstand scrutiny of his past. At least one candidate already is probing that touchy topic.
Officialdom at all levels of the Grand Old Party, from Congress to the statehouses to the Republican National Committee, appear poised to confer the nomination on Mr. Bush, whose light intellectual weight is counterbalanced by his brand-name recognition and crossover voter appeal. But their admonitions to observe the party’s “11th Commandment” not to speak ill of a fellow Republican are sure to be ignored.
The party’s hard right is restless at the prospect of a candidate who prefers “compassionate conservatism” to the Kulturkampf . Right-wingers are appalled by Mr. Bush’s mushiness on issues like abortion and affirmative action. Only days after he announced his multicultural exploratory committee, he was attacked by right-to-life leader Phyllis Schlafly for his pragmatic approach to the abortion issue. She was resuming a fight that began in 1996, when Mr. Bush unsuccessfully tried to dilute the extremist platform statement on abortion. The presence in his camp of pro-choice Republicans will only further irritate Mrs. Schlafly and her ilk. And those tensions can only encourage personal attacks on Mr. Bush from his rivals.
But no matter how nasty or dainty the Republican contest may be, journalistic obligations remain the same. With few exceptions, the national press corps failed in 1996 to hold Bob Dole to the same standards applied to the President, despite Mr. Dole’s occasional whining about the liberal media. None of his dubious business deals got a fraction of the coverage that the Clintons’ finances received.
The younger Mr. Bush, who became a millionaire while his father held national office, should not escape so easily. Some time after he declares his candidacy, Mr. Bush ought to be asked to release his tax returns for the past 10 years, as his father did in 1988. The most tantalizing entries are likely to concern his years as an oilman.
Mr. Bush made his first million during the 1980’s with Harken Energy, a Houston-based oil exploration company. According to Mother Jones magazine, a major Harken stock offering in 1987 was underwritten by Stephens Inc.-the legendary Arkansas investment house whose tenuous connections with Mr. Clinton have provoked reams of wild speculation.
Also central to Mr. Bush’s fortunes was Union Bank, a mysterious institution that allegedly helped the infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International to skirt Panamanian money-laundering laws by flying cash out of the country in private jets, and was used by the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos to hide tons of stolen gold.
Early in 1990, certain powerful B.C.C.I. shareholders helped Harken to win a lucrative exploration deal in the tiny Persian Gulf sheikdom of Bahrain. That deal, which drove up Harken’s stock price, looked strange in light of Harken’s shaky finances and lack of offshore drilling experience-except for the corporate tie to the Vice President’s son. Then Mr. Bush profitably sold off his Harken shares just days after the State Department secretly warned the White House about potential Iraqi aggression, and just weeks before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait sent Harken stock plummeting.
Stephens Inc., B.C.C.I. and a very timely stock play represent only the most obvious questions about Mr. Bush’s career. We shall see whether they become as interesting to the “liberal media” as an old land deal in Arkansas once did.