Burdened with a presidential candidate who cannot accurately describe his own proposals, the Bush campaign has resorted to a final blitz of defamation against Al Gore for "exaggerations," a smirking way of saying lies. Members of Team Bush fanned out over the weekend to spread that message, led by Dick Cheney himself.
The former defense secretary seems to believe that any remark by Gore that can be disputed or nitpicked qualifies as a falsehood. Yet, if Cheney himself were held to that standard, it is he who would qualify as last week's most shameless prevaricator. When Sen. Joe Lieberman jabbed him lightly about the millions of dollars reaped by Cheney in the private sector, the Republican bluntly riposted, "I can tell you, Joe, that the government had absolutely nothing to do with it."
That moment of macho posturing was more brazen and self-serving -- and considerably less defensible -- than any of the famous "fibs" attributed to Gore during the current campaign. How could this lifelong politician and federal bureaucrat pretend that he hadn't profited from his government service? Did he expect anyone to believe that without his government risumi, he would have been handpicked to run a major industrial corporation? Wasn't Halliburton's selection of Cheney a rather obvious clue to the corporation's dependence on the government?
Yet reporters who have needled Gore for so many months over whether he and his wife were truly the models for "Love Story" have let Cheney's whopper slip by almost unnoticed. Almost, but not totally -- thanks mainly to Bloomberg News, which ran an excellent story Friday disputing Cheney's statement. John Rega, a reporter in Bloomberg's Washington bureau, examined the very lucrative relationship with the federal government enjoyed by Halliburton Inc., the oil-services and construction conglomerate where Cheney served as chairman and CEO for the past five years (and from which he has received nearly $39 million in salary and stock options).
What Rega's research showed is that Halliburton has been a prime beneficiary of the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corp., both important but little-known federal agencies whose programs are sometimes impolitely derided as "corporate welfare." The Ex-Im Bank provides loans and loan guarantees that help American multinationals doing business abroad, while OPIC offers political risk insurance for foreign investment projects by U.S. companies.
Most recently, Cheney sought $500 million in Ex-Im Bank loan guarantees last winter for an oil-recovery project in Russia. Overcoming initial objections by the State Department, his pleas ensured that the guarantees were approved in March. That deal was only one of several Halliburton investments that involved $1.8 billion in Ex-Im Bank loans or loan guarantees.
Cheney no longer seems grateful for this taxpayer-financed success, but three years ago he practically groveled at the Ex-Im Bank's annual conference. His May 1997 speech to Ex-Im Bank executives took unctuous note of Halliburton projects supported by the agency in "Algeria, Angola, Colombia, the Philippines, Russia, the Czech Republic, Thailand, China, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kuwait, India, Kenya, the Congo, Brazil, Argentina, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Indonesia, Malaysia and Mexico" (in short, almost anywhere that Halliburton did business). It had all been made possible, he said, by blending "private-sector resources with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government."
Concepts such as loan guarantees and political insurance sound more complicated than they really are. The chief function of these federal programs is to reduce the cost of borrowing for corporations making investments in far-flung places where there might be serious trouble. In plain English, this means that corporations like Halliburton take the profits while American taxpayers take the risks.
Aside from the corporate welfare that girds many of its foreign investments, Halliburton relies heavily on Pentagon contracts. According to Bloomberg, the Defense Department bestowed contracts worth about $1.8 billion on Cheney's company between 1996 and 1999; and the conglomerate's Brown and Root subsidiary was hired to provide "logistical support" to U.S. servicemen and women in the Balkans.
Left unmentioned in the Bloomberg article, but also significant, are Brown and Root's contracts with state and local governments for the construction of highways and other infrastructure projects. Nor should it be forgotten that many Halliburton deals are made with foreign governments, including such sterling entities as the dictatorship of Myanmar (formerly Burma), where Cheney's former associates built a gas pipeline a few years ago.
There is a touch of irony in Cheney's silly denial that he relied upon the government during his sojourn in the private sector. His success depended not only on support from Washington but on support from federal agencies overseen by the two men he now execrates daily on the hustings, President Clinton and Gore. Cheney and his running mate masquerade as rugged individualists when in fact they are nothing but crony capitalists whose achievements and wealth would have been impossible without political clout.
And that is also why Cheney's embellishment suggests a larger truth about the corporate ideology of the Republican ticket.