Joe Conason

A daily political weblog, updated as circumstances demand.

By Salon Staff
Published July 12, 2002 5:46PM (EDT)

Bush, Karl and the tumbling Dow
Over the past 24 hours there have been several signals that the Bush Administration is deeply worried by the politics of corporate scandal. Dubya made a silly, sanctimonious (and surely unscripted) comment, belittling public concern over the issue. Karl simply lost his kool. And today, the White House hastily called in the new Corporate Fraud Task Force to have their pictures taken with the President -- no questions, please.

"I believe people have taken a step back and asked, Whats important in life?" said the nations chief executive Thursday. "You know, the bottom line and this corporate America stuff, is that important? Or is serving your neighbor, loving your neighbor like youd like to be loved yourself?" These shards of clueless verbiage bring to mind his fathers brief but beautiful poem about economic distress, "Message: I care."

A less saccharine, more candid view blurted from the lips of his adviser Rove, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The man is outraged. "This crass political calculation that we're going to talk about this not because it's important but because we can score some cheesy political points, Americans are smarter than that. They see through that stuff," barked Rove, who would never, ever imagine doing anything crass, political or calculating. (He must have thought that photo-op of Bush with the Corporate Fraud Task Force was just awful.) "People have confidence that the president will deal with this problem," Rove added, probably before he had a chance to check the closing Dow numbers.

Clinton admits a real scandal
Over in Barcelona, Bill Clinton confessed his guilt last night. Speaking at the Global AIDS conference, the former President said he should have done much more to fight HIV/AIDS when he was in office. His worst dereliction, he admitted, was to maintain the deadly federal ban on funding for needle exchange programs, which reduce the spread of AIDS among drug users. In 1995, I called that decision the Clinton Administrations "most appalling scandal," because the President and his advisers had ignored copious studies by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health concluding that the ban should be lifted to save lives. Indeed, his aides tried to cover up those studies. But that kind of story didnt attract much attention from investigative journalists during the Clinton presidency; they were too preoccupied with bimbo eruptions and bogus scandals.

The failure of humanity to sufficiently mobilize itself against AIDS isnt Clintons fault alone, obviously. He could have done more, but at least hes trying now. You will have a better understanding of why he is so disturbed  and why he believes there is still a chance for us to prevail  after you expose yourself to "Pandemic : Facing AIDS" . This extraordinary exploration of the dimensions of the crisis, in multiple media, was introduced in Barcelona this week. Via movies, TV, bookstores and schools the project will soon begin to make its way around the world. Lets hope its ambition to inspire a lethargic species succeeds.

Where to get "Notes on a Native Son"  and where not to
Before signing off for the weekend, Id like to respond to readers who requested an article I wrote for the February 2000 issue of Harpers magazine about George W. Bushs business career. Back issues are available directly from Harpers via the magazines Website. If youre interested I recommend getting the actual back issue if only for the wonderful artwork and charts that accompanied the article. But the story can also be found online by typing the title  "Notes on a Native Son"  into any good search engine. And I must also apologize to frustrated readers who followed the EDGAR link posted here the other day, looking for Harken filings. I didnt realize that the SEC website only includes documents filed in 1993 or later.
[Posted: 3:15 p.m. PST, July 12, 2002]

The Post comes to the rescue
The White House is erecting a Harken defense this morning. NPR's "Morning Edition" featured a combative interview with James Doty, whose résumé includes a stint as George W. Bush's personal attorney (when he bought the Texas Rangers baseball team in 1989) and Securities and Exchange Commission general counsel (when Bush was being investigated by the agency a few years later). He went further than insisting that he had not interfered with the investigation of his former client. Until host Bob Edwards actually pulled out the 1993 letter proving the opposite, Doty tried to claim that his former client had been "exonerated" by the SEC. His closing remarks were a muttering acknowledgment that the agency forbid such a claim -- which Bush made anyway during his 1994 race for Texas governor.

Also coming to the president's assistance today were the editorial writers of the Washington Post. Whenever the "liberal" Post brass feels like puffing Republicans, neither facts nor consistency are considered relevant. Today, the paper begins with an Ari Fleischer-style non sequitur, warning that Congress shouldn't let Harken distract members from corporate reform. Why isn't it possible to discuss both? More ridiculous is the editorial's description of the SEC chairman who oversaw the probe of Bush. He was just "a Republican who knew Mr. Bush's father." Knew his father? I daresay Richard Breeden "knew" the man whose staff he worked on in the White House and who then appointed him to the SEC. (The SEC honcho had so many pictures of Bush the elder on his office walls that one wit quipped, "George Bush is Breeden's Mao.")

The Post assures readers that the SEC probe must have been scrupulous anyway, and that there was no evidence of insider trading by Bush (see Anthony York's story Friday for compelling evidence). "The Harken story took place years ago. It has already been investigated and aired."

Quite a change from the same page's tone in January 1994, when it demanded an independent Whitewater counsel even though "there has been no credible charge in this case that either the president or Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong." Then the Post warned that it simply would not do to have Whitewater investigated by Justice Department attorneys. "To whom do they report?" it huffed. The same rhetorical question, of course, could be asked about the Bush-era SEC and its probe of the president's son.

The Post also exonerates Bush of any real responsibility for the phony accounting deal used to create Harken's phantom profit. For an excellent description of this episode, see the business story in Friday's Los Angeles Times comparing it with Enron's scams. "The people at Enron could have gone to school on this thing," according to Alfred King, former managing director of the Institute of Management Accountants and former advisor to the Financial Accounting Standards Board. "They [Harken] sold to themselves and recorded a profit. That's exactly what Enron did on a number of those off-balance-sheet transactions. On this one transaction at least, it's almost identical."

[Posted: 11 a.m. PST, July 12, 2002]

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Salon Staff

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