Joe Conason's Journal

Bush expresses confidence the SEC will clear Cheney, but could that be seen as applying pressure on the agency?

By Salon Staff
Published July 17, 2002 3:36PM (EDT)

Leaning on the SEC?
Eager as George Bush may be to express confidence in Dick Cheney, the president might have thought twice before predicting so explicitly that the Securities and Exchange Commission will clear Cheney of any wrongdoing in the Halliburton matter. At the moment, the SEC chairman is under pressure to resign, in part for allegedly improper contacts with investigative targets. (I write here that I don't think Harvey Pitt should be forced to, but those ill-advised meetings haven't improved confidence in him and his agency.) Doubts persist about the objectivity of the SEC investigation of Bush himself when his father was president. (He did nothing to assuage those doubts when, during the press conference with the Polish president, he again declined to request that the Harken case files be released.) Bush was answering a question from a reporter when he uttered that comment about Cheney and Halliburton, an innocent circumstance. But he ought to be careful to avoid any hint of an attempt to influence that investigation.

Only a week in this space, and already I feel the need to amend a column. Criticizing the New York Times Tuesday, I implied that the paper of record failed to report on Bush's business career during the presidential campaign. As a reader with a better memory pointed out, that isn't true. On Sept. 24, 2000, The Times ran a very thorough front-page story by Nicholas Kristof -- who essentially recycled his own work, with pertinent commentary, in his latest column. Nothing wrong with that.

Deep inside that original Kristof piece is a tantalizing reference to the legal troubles of Arlington Mayor Richard Greene at the time he rammed through the sweetheart deal for Bush and his partners. Back in 1990, Greene was simultaneously negotiating with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to settle a massive lawsuit against him. He had formerly been president of the Arlington branch of Sunbelt Savings Association, described by the Fort Worth Star Telegram as "one of the most notorious failures of the S&L scandal." Sunbelt lost an estimated $2 billion, and cleaning up the mess there cost the feds about $297 million. Around the same time that he signed the deal enriching the Rangers syndicate, Greene and the FDIC reached agreement on the pending lawsuit. The Arlington mayor paid $40,000 to settle the case -- scarcely enough to cover the costs of the negotiation -- and walked away.

"George had no knowledge of my problems; there is no connection," he assured the Times in September 2000. That's certainly good to know. Still, Greene's experience makes an interesting contrast with what happened to another S&L operator named McDougal.
[Posted: 1:35 p.m. PDT, July 17, 2002]

Treating an "infectious greed"
Tuesday's startling testimony by Alan Greenspan was more than just another opportunity to divine the direction of nominal interest rates. Coming from a onetime acolyte of Ayn Rand and an architect of the Reagan "revolution," the Fed chairman's denunciation of "infectious greed" was the epitaph of libertarianism. (NPR's "Marketplace" had the wit to ask actor Ed Asner, a lifelong left-wing Democrat, to read Greenspans dryly delivered remarks in the dramatic tones they deserved.) His words were evidence that even aging libertarians have to grow up someday.

Rand's ideas long outlived her. According to the absolutist philosophy enunciated by the late author of "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged," greed is almost always good, and the more "infectious" the better. In her parody of Marxism, she insisted that unfettered avarice would advance the greatest benefit for the greatest number. (If you have noticed a similarity between these infantile ideas and what currently passes for "conservatism," then you're catching on.) While Greenspan has moderated his views over the decades since he sat at the feet of Rand in her New York apartment, he remains the most prominent libertarian fellow traveler ever to hold high office in this country.

The Fed chairman seems to have finally shaken off the remaining vestiges of this creed, which still guides the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, the House Republican leadership and innumerable lonely college students. After expressing his dismay over the vastly increased "avenues to express greed," he went on to make another startling admission for a man of such inclinations. Until recently, he explained, he had believed that market forces alone would provide sufficient discipline to the accounting profession, and that "regulation by government was utterly unnecessary and, indeed, most inappropriate." Then he said, "I was wrong."

And with that, Greenspan blew taps for the Republican right. So much for two decades of ideologically driven dismantling of government protection for investors, consumers and citizens. Goodbye to all that, and good riddance. Maybe someday we'll see a revival of the kind of conservatism that once valued social solidarity along with enterprise, and demanded responsibility as the price of privilege.
[Posted: 8:30 a.m. PDT, July 17, 2002]

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Salon Staff

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