Has the Washington press corps lost its taste for White House scandal?
Having just begun to examine the details of the Enron crash and the tangled financial and political strands that connect the bankrupt energy trader to almost everyone who is anyone in the Bush administration, several of the most influential scandalmongers already think it’s time to “move on.” They contend that since no evidence has been found that would implicate President George W. Bush or any of his appointees in a crime, this story should be relegated to the business pages.
That judgment seems premature, to say the least, and hardly consistent with the hungry attitude of the Clinton era, when putting officials under oath and demanding reams of documents became the highest priorities for nearly every newspaper and network in the nation.
Back then, if the White House appeared defensive, or if the Presidential press secretary was caught giving false information, or if the President himself made a scandal-related remark that was obviously untrue, journalists who smelled blood would bare their teeth and snarl. Today some of the fiercest pundits of yesteryear sound as if they’re ready to whimper and roll over.
Consider the contradictions that have emerged over the past several days. At another time, such a hastily revised narrative would have provoked weeks of furious commentary about cover-ups and candor (or the lack thereof).
Until Jan. 13, Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer insisted that nobody in the White House knew until last week about calls from Kenneth Lay seeking administration aid for his failing firm last fall. Mr. Lay and his associates contacted Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, among others, to hint at the market chaos certain to ensue unless the administration helped them cope with banks and credit agencies.
Now, however, we are told that sometime in November, Mr. Evans, the former Bush campaign chief, told White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr. about the calls from Mr. Lay. According to the commerce secretary, Mr. Card replied, “Thank you very much.” But supposedly neither of them ever mentioned the Lay pleas to the President, who was also left uninformed by Mr. O’Neill.
As far as his appointees were concerned, the President had no need to know that the world’s largest energy trader, on the brink of implosion, was asking for federal assistance. Why tell him?
For his part, Mr. Bush has suggested that he hardly knew the man he calls “Kenny Boy” until after he was elected governor of Texas in 1994.
Last week, when reporters asked about his relationship with Mr. Lay, the President replied, “He was a supporter of [former Texas Governor] Ann Richards in my run in 1994. And she did name him the head of the Governor’s Business Council, and I decided to leave him in place just for the sake of continuity. And that’s when I first got to know Ken and worked with Ken, and he supported my candidacy.”
That incredible statement is just as misleading as the famous remark another President once made about “that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” and much easier to debunk, as demonstrated in the Houston Chronicle. Actually, Mr. Lay’s support of George W. Bush dates back to his first unsuccessful candidacy for Congress in 1978. Mr. Lay, his wife and Enron executives gave Mr. Bush a total of $146,500 in 1994, compared with $12,500 they donated to the Richards campaign that year.
Explaining this choice in a television interview last March, Mr. Lay said, “When Governor Bush, now President Bush, decided to run for the governor’s spot, [there was] a difficult situation. I’d worked very closely with Ann Richards also, the four years she was governor. But I was very close to George W. and had a lot of respect for him, had watched him over the years … and so [I] did support him.”
Tempting comparisons with a previous era can be overdrawn, of course. So far as anyone knows, neither the President nor any of his appointees were doing business with Enron when the firm’s principals were ripping off their stockholders and employees.
They had done a lot of political and financial business with Enron and Mr. Lay for years prior to those unfortunate events. They had provided Mr. Lay and his executives with special access to policy makers, including Vice President Dick Cheney. They had followed Mr. Lay’s advice about who should be appointed to regulate his company and how his company should be taxed. They learned that Enron was heading down the drain before anybody else found out, including the company’s sadly misinformed employees, yet kept their mouths shut and did nothing.
Whether that decision was proper or not remains to be determined in the course of ongoing investigations by various committees of Congress, agencies of government and public prosecutors. There is still much more to be learned, however, before all the journalists who have misplaced their teeth yawn and go back to sleep.