I'm with Lou
If Lou Dobbs found the President's speech hollow and unimpressive, who am I to argue? The venerable CNN business anchor and commentator is a no-nonsense, flag-in-the-lapel kind of guy who doggedly defended Arthur Andersen against the "excesses" of the Justice Department. He's no left-winger. His instant reaction when Bush finished was that this represented yet another rhetorical exercise ("no capitalism without conscience") instead of a new reformist departure. He noted disapprovingly that the President had failed to mention the need to treat executive stock options as corporate expenses. I thought that amid all those sonorous fortune-cookie phrases ("no wealth without character") he offered a few decent proposals but I just don't find him credible on this topic. When George W. Bush talks about the importance of honest business practices and corporate integrity, it's like listening to Bill Clinton lecture about chastity. (Which Clinton would, thankfully, never do.)
"Can you ever give Bush the benefit of the doubt?" asked someone whose first impression of today's speech was better than mine (or Lou's). I suppose I could, except for one problem that gnaws. Until Bush resolves the questions about his role at Harken Energy and the subsequent SEC probe, he will have little moral authority to urge reform on corporate leaders -- or send any of them to prison. He was not exonerated by the SEC, but he might be able to exonerate himself by disclosing the case file. He didn't help himself by dodging that question yesterday.
Meanwhile his administration remains a haven for dubious corporate figures, from Army Secretary Thomas White to Vice President Dick Cheney, now under investigation himself by the SEC for his strange stewardship of Halliburton. Equally dim is the Bush record on "transparency," which in government means freedom of information and full disclosure of special interest influence. The attorney general issues new directives every month to shut off information from the public and the press. The vice president still resists the release of his Energy Task Force records, replete with visits from the minions of Enron and kindred companies. This is the opposite of transparency.
[Posted: 4:30 p.m. PST, July 9, 2002]
The President's ever-changing Harken story
What a time it is -- in this new dawn of "corporate responsibility" -- to be writing a daily journal online. My first deadline became easier to contemplate as I watched the president dodge his way through the Monday post-holiday White House press conference that punctuated his journey from the Kennebunkport golf course to Wall Street. George W. Bush, the ultimate American insider, has no desire to discuss the ways he made his millions. And his impatience with such impertinence is beginning to show.
Reading from an aggressive text prepared by Karl Rove, Bush tried to strike a tone of command within moments of stepping to the podium. Rather than badger him about ethical problems from his business career, he suggested, those Senate Democrats ought to get back to the nation's real business. They are playing politics, he suggested, while our troops languish without critical funding in a time of war. They should be passing his trade legislation, his energy bill, his pension protections and his defense appropriations, rather than asking questions about him.
But the ordinarily docile White House press corps, while chuckling appreciatively at the president's wisecracks, wasn't entirely buying that line. "This is recycled ... stuff," he said in response to the first question about his 1990 sale of Harken Energy stock, and the reporters laughed. The questions continued, however, and the answers weren't impressive.
George W. Bush has offered varying accounts over the past decade of his dealings as a Harken director. Back when he was running for Texas governor in 1994, he blamed the Securities and Exchange Commission for misplacing the disclosure forms he was supposed to file about his insider sale of 212,000 shares of Harken stock. At another point, he blamed the Harken lawyers, even though the filing wasn't their responsibility at all. Lately, his spokesman has tried to blame his own attorney (who now serves as the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia). "I still haven't figured it out completely," Bush shrugged on Monday afternoon.
In other words, everybody was responsible for his failure to observe the securities laws except him. It sounded a bit tinny when he reminded those listening to his press conference that his very favorite theme is "a renewed sense of [personal] responsibility."
As we all know by now, Bush's corporate maneuvering has been "fully vetted." He expanded that line of defense when he claimed that the SEC examined all the aspects of his conduct at Harken "in a very thorough way." Exactly how thorough we may never know, since he declined to answer whether he would allow the SEC to release the entire file of its investigation into his controversial Harken trades. "This is old politics," he replied, complaining that the issue comes up every time he runs for office.
It keeps coming up, of course, because his story is so implausible. On Monday he tried to argue that he had actually lost a windfall by selling when he did, because 14 months later the stock had risen to twice the amount he realized from the June 1990 sale. That left out the most relevant financial history -- notably, that within two months after he sold his shares, Harken reported a devastating second-quarter loss of more than $20 million, and moreover that by December 1990 those same shares were trading at $1.25, or less than a third of the $4 price he had gotten when he got out.
Someone did have the temerity to inquire whether Bush had played any role in Harken's dubious "sale" of an entity called Aloha Petroleum (as in "aloha, suckers") to its own officers, a sham transaction that put lipstick on Harken to attract gullible investors. The president couldn't remember what he thought about the Aloha deal, saying he would have to consult the directors' minutes. Anyway, he added, that incident "and all matters relating to Harken were fully looked into by the SEC." And besides, the company had restated its phony earnings when ordered to by the SEC some time later. So what was the problem?
What the president didn't mention -- perhaps because nobody asked -- was that his father's appointees and his own personal attorney were running the SEC when he was investigated. The agency's chairman was an ardent loyalist named Richard Breeden, who had served as a top domestic policy aide to George Herbert Walker Bush. (He is now the court-appointed overseer of WorldCom.) Its general counsel was James Doty, the lawyer who had handled the sale of the Texas Rangers baseball team to Dubya's syndicate only two years earlier.
A few years ago, such obviously compromised presidential relationships would have provoked exclamations of outrage on the editorial pages of the nation's great newspapers, culminating in demands for a congressional investigation and even an independent counsel. Reporters would have camped out at the SEC to ambush the chairman with arms outstretched, harassing him to deliver those files about the president. The laughter in the press room and the newsrooms and the TV studios would have been anything but friendly, and the chatter would soon have turned to dark musings about the character of the man inhabiting the Oval Office. But that was when the president's name was Clinton, not Bush.
[Posted: 8:30 p.m. PST, July 8, 2002]