Bush's integrity deficit rivals Condit's

The shocking sellout of national energy policy to the oil-and-gas industry harms the country more than Condit's stonewalling about Chandra Levy.

Published August 30, 2001 5:52PM (EDT)

You may think that picking the winner of last week's political hubris trophy -- awarded intermittently to the public figure who best exemplifies excellence in stonewalling, obfuscation, hypocrisy and arrogance -- was a no-brainer: Rep. Gary Condit in a landslide, right?

Wrong. The prize actually goes to the Bush White House for its high-handed -- and ham-fisted -- actions on behalf of its paymasters in the Big Energy lobby. It would be fun to say that Condit came in second by a hair, but, in fact, it wasn't even close.

After all, Condit's self-immolation is a summer diversion that will have zero impact on our lives -- provided we can stop wasting time following every new report of nothing new to report. The grotesquely biased Bush energy plan, on the other hand, will definitely have an impact on our lives.

The "Masters of the Universe" behavior exhibited by both Condit and the White House troika of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and top political advisor Karl Rove is illuminated in Vaclev Havel's laser-sharp description of a politician completely cut off from a sense of right and wrong: "He believes that he has something like an unconditional free pass to anywhere, even to heaven. Anyone who dares to scrutinize his pass is an enemy who does him wrong."

Just how unconditional the White House believes its free pass to be was revealed in a gripping exposé in this past Sunday's Los Angeles Times, detailing the energy industry's hand-in-glove involvement in shaping the administration's energy policy.

The shocking thing isn't that oilmen W and Dick turned to their energy industry buddies for input into their task force's plan. No, what's shocking is how blatant the influence was -- and how shameless the White House was in conforming to it. How quickly back-slapping gave way to back-scratching.

For instance, did you ever wonder why Bush pulled the plug on his campaign promise to restrict CO2 emissions? We now learn that his flip-flop came fast on the heels of an all-out blitz from super-lobbyist -- and former Bush campaign advisor -- Haley Barbour.

Shortly after Barbour sent a pointed memo to Cheney strongly suggesting that the president rethink his position -- and place profits over pollution -- the president's task force, whaddya know, rethought its position. And when Bush, too, toed the line, he cited the task force's argument. Forget Tinker to Evers to Chance, when it came to this "Dubya play," it was Barbour to Cheney to Bush.

The Times investigation also shows how the final energy report came to tout hydraulic fracturing, a gas-recovery technique championed by former Cheney employer Halliburton Co. -- and how negative language about this environmentally questionable process that had appeared in an earlier draft was mysteriously deleted.

When asked about this, a Halliburton spokeswoman claimed that company executives never discussed the energy report with the VP. "Of course, we talk to him," said Halliburton's Wendy Hall, "but not about the plan, and not about hydraulic fracturing." Of course not. They probably just called to fill Cheney in on all the funny stuff that happened at this year's company picnic or to ask him whether he thought "American Pie 2" was better than the original.

We also learn that a section of the task force's final report dealing with global warming was lifted almost verbatim from a policy paper put out by an energy industry trade group. I say almost, because in one sentence, the industry group used the phrase "both for" while the task force went with "for both." A complete syntactical reversal -- now that's some independent thinking!

The tasty tidbits go on and on, such as how the task force included a Bush appointee whose wife was raking in $60,000 lobbying for electricity companies at the same time her hubby was helping craft the energy plan. And how the only time Cheney deviated from his refusal to reveal the names of those helping him shape the plan was when he met with representatives from solar, wind and geothermal power, and then proudly trotted them out to meet the press.

But that's the nature of secrets: People keep secret the things they're not proud of. And reading the details, it's easy to see why the vice president has been fighting to keep the workings of the task force shrouded in secrecy. But did he really think that this stuff would never come out? Cheney has a reputation as a cunning political mastermind but, now that the facts are out, he begins to seem less like Machiavelli and more like, well, George W. Bush with a bum ticker.

And, remember, this was supposed to be the administration that was going to "restore honor and integrity to the White House." Two days after taking office, George W. gave his troops their marching orders on ethics:

"I expect every member of this administration to stay well within the boundaries that define legal and ethical conduct," said W. "This means avoiding even the appearance of improper conduct."

Maybe Cheney and Rove just weren't paying attention. That could, at least partly, account for Rove's penchant for attending meetings on issues involving companies in which he owned stock. He took part in multiple energy policy meetings while owning stock in energy companies such as Enron. And in March, he met at the White House with the chairman of Intel and a pair of lobbyists who were pushing for approval of a high-tech merger the White House endorsed shortly thereafter. Three months later, Rove sold his Intel stock for $110,000.

But when congressional Democrats questioned whether Rove had violated federal conflict-of-interest laws, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales defended him by claiming that the meetings fell outside the scope of government ethics rules because they were of a "general" nature. And what Rove's defense really means, of course, is that there was "no controlling legal authority." So much for "avoiding even the appearance of improper conduct."

The fresh air that W promised to bring to the White House has grown so foul that Gonzales has decided it's time for a refresher course on ethics and conflict-of-interest issues. Maybe, in true Bush bipartisan spirit, they'll invite Gary Condit to enroll in the class.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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Dick Cheney Energy George W. Bush