Joe Conason

Bush talks -- the market tumbles. And despite offering "hope" to young Americans, the job market is faring badly, too.

By Salon Staff
Published July 15, 2002 3:19PM (EDT)

Talk that's not cheap
When George Bush talks, people listen -- and sell. When Bush stopped talking for a few hours, the market eventually rallied, although not quite enough to erase the sickening 439-point plunge that followed his speech. Listening to the president dish out platitudes in Alabama could make any intelligent American despair. He still boasts about his tax cuts, and complains about the inheritance tax, with considerably more conviction than he can muster when he finally mentions corporate corruption. He still talks about reining in the trial lawyers, as if they're somehow to blame for the drifting economy.

Bush's inability to focus and provide real assurance about the direction of the economy and the integrity of financial markets is spooking investors. And for obvious reasons, he cannot bring out that former Halliburton executive down the hall (or down in the bunker) to borrow some gravitas.

It is true, as Bush said so cheerily in Birmingham, that the economy has seen some positive indicators in recent months. There has been some growth in the service sector. Inflation, as he said without irony, is certainly low. Bitter laughter might have been more appropriate than applause, however, when the president spoke repeatedly of his concern about the need to create jobs and to help "young Americans who have no hope." For the most disturbing numbers crunched by those Washington wonks disparaged by Bush are the employment figures, which show that this feeble recovery is creating very few new jobs.

Job market slumping, too
The jobless rate has remained stagnant at around 6 percent for months now. Unemployment increased the most among young (12.2 percent) and black (10.7 percent) workers in June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In absolute numbers, private sector payrolls actually declined slightly during the second quarter. And the Economic Policy Institute's labor analysts estimate that real unemployment is even higher because discouraged people are withdrawing from the job market.

Corporate reform, meaning reregulation of big business, is essential. But a real program for rapid economic growth is just as important. Yammering about death taxes and trial lawyers achieves nothing, even if Republicans still applaud those lines in Alabama.
[Posted: 3:30 p.m PDT, July 15, 2002]

Beyond Bush's glowing approval rating
The Gallup Organization has posted a survey of citizen opinion about Harken and Bush that doesn't bode well for the White House. While the new poll shows that Americans by a wide margin still consider terrorism the nation's most pressing problem, and that the president's approval ratings remain above 70 percent, there are signs that Bush's corporate connections and business past may cause him severe trouble.

Gallup wrote a headline meant to reassure the president  "Few implicate Bush over financial dealings at Harken" -- but Karl Rove will know better when he looks at those numbers. Remember, this poll reflects less than one week of intense coverage, surely the first time that most Americans ever heard of Harken Energy. Even after that sketchy start, fully 39 percent of respondents believe the president did something "illegal" or "unethical" in his role as a corporate director. Thirty-one percent believe that he "did not do anything seriously wrong," while 30 percent have no opinion now. Additional data in this poll indicate that most people still aren't paying much attention to the Harken story and that most also ignored Bush's Wall Street speech.

In a nod to counterspin, the Gallup pollsters appended this ominous footnote: "It should be noted that the low level of attention being paid to the Harken controversy, as well as the relatively high 30 percent who have no opinion on the matter, suggests that the president's past financial dealings with this company could become more of a political liability in the future." In a similar vein, Gallup warns that people take a very dim view of the Bush administration's connections to Enron, with up to 58 percent perceiving an "illegal or unethical" taint.

Like a Vince Foster-free Whitewater
Twisted comparisons to Whitewater keep coming up, even from putatively impartial researchers like Gallup. Explaining its methodology, the august (and traditionally pro-Republican) polling firm's news release contrasts Bush's Harken ratings with those from earlier polls about Whitewater and other alleged scandals, and finds Bush relatively unscathed. Gallup notes that when it first tested the damage to Bill Clinton from Whitewater in March 1994, 61 percent thought the president had been involved in something "illegal/unethical."

Devoid of context, this comparison is ridiculously misleading. That March 1994 poll may have been Gallup's first regarding Clinton/Whitewater, but it reflected considerably more than a single week of media coverage. By then the media had saturated the public with 28 weeks of Whitewater coverage, stimulated by the sensational suicide of Vince Foster, the emergence of Clinton accusers David Hale and Jean Lewis, and the President's own request for the appointment of a Whitewater independent counsel.

A lame Whitewater excuse
Remarkably, Whitewater is becoming an excuse to brush away the unanswered questions about Harken. Since Whitewater turned out to be an insanely expensive dry hole, goes this argument, it would be unseemly for Congress and the press to make a similar fuss over Harken. Variations on this theme have been heard from Howard Kurtz and Jonathan Alter of Newsweek.

Well, we have a long, long way to go -- hundreds of thousands of column inches and hours of videotape, I would estimate -- before there is any risk of restaging the Whitewater farce. Nobody in Congress has yet proposed appointing an independent counsel for Harken. But is it really too much to expect the press to undertake a full examination of a relevant story that most editors and producers ignored when it mattered most in 2000? (And please don't try to tell me that a few paragraphs buried in a book-length profile or a story in a regional paper provided adequate public understanding of Harken.)

If Whitewater was an important locus of media investigation between 1992 and 1998, then Harken is worthy of another few weeks or months of probing. There is still much to be excavated from the Harken crater, and no reason to assume that this job need "distract" from the broader corporate issue, as John McCain warned piously Sunday. To insist that a serious probe of Harken can only reproduce the abuses of Whitewater coverage is to pose a false choice that reeks of double standards. We all know what the press and the Republicans would be doing if this were a Clinton deal, don't we?

[Posted at 8:30 a.m. PDT, July 15, 2002]

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Salon Staff

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