Bush's hot air balloon

Flying around the country to help GOP candidates, the president has nothing of substance to say about the economy, the environment, or the war on terror.

By Eric Boehlert
Published November 5, 2002 8:35PM (EST)

Forgive Harvey Pitt, the embattled chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission, if he's wondering what all the fuss is about. Last week Pitt was forced to appoint an SEC investigator to investigate himself, after allegations that he knew pertinent and embarrassing information about the business background of former FBI and CIA head William Webster before the SEC voted to appoint Webster to head its new accounting oversight board.

According to the New York Times, some Bush administration officials "were said to be deeply upset that Mr. Pitt had never told them about the details of Mr. Webster's [business] ties."

Bush administration officials fuming over withheld information? The same White House that discovered North Korea was covertly operating a nuclear weapons program, yet withheld that bombshell from members of Congress as they voted to authorize the president to wage war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein might one day operate a nuclear program?

Is this the same White House that for more than a year has withheld the most basic information about whom it consulted to create its energy task force in 2001? Critics suspect, with good reason, that energy execs were given free rein at the White House, but the administration continues to insist the conversations are covered by executive privilege -- even though an administration attorney conceded to a judge last month that the White House hasn't even looked at most of the energy task-force documents in question.

Poor Pitt. His career in public service may be doomed thanks to his sin of withholding sensitive information. But wasn't he simply following the White House playbook, where secrecy and gall are always options No. 1 and 2?

The White House in recent months has seemed drunk with power. It's not a power it earned on Election Day 2000, of course, when Bush's opponent tallied more votes, or through its hard work over the last two years, convincing a majority of Americans that its ideas were more sound than the Democrats'. It's a power the White House was given as a collective gift by Americans after a gang of terrorists hijacked four airplanes last year and killed more than 3,000 people -- and it may be enough to keep the president's party from the traditionally huge loss of congressional seats in the midterm elections. It recalls former Texas governor Ann Richards' old line about Bush 41: that he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. Today, Bush 43 is dancing off the same third base politically but doesn't realize he got there only after an umpire's blown call, an error and a passed ball.

But Bush has tried to secure his al-Qaida-bestowed political advantages by using underhanded, hardball tactics. With most eyes on the election and the war, his maneuvers have gone largely unnoticed. But make no mistake, the White House is playing politics every chance it gets: with 9/11 families, veterans' benefits, the EPA, public health, government workers, the establishment of Homeland Security and the war with Iraq. Bush's most brazen -- and symbolic -- partisan move involved dipping into welfare funds to help offset his nonstop travel costs for GOP fund-raisers, but even that outrage went almost unremarked.

Meanwhile, the White House is playing fast and loose politically with foreign policy, too, escalating war rhetoric to a fevered pitch only to abandon the topic -- and the White House -- for weeks on end to raise money for Republican candidates. Earlier while searching for a rationale for war, the administration leaned heavily on fabrications and dubious "evidence" about Saddam Hussein's connection with al-Qaida as well as Iraq's rumored but probably nonexistent nuclear capabilities. More recently came Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's Strangelovian decision to create his own private, in-house intelligence shop on Iraq, in hopes that it will produce analyses more to his liking than the kind career analysts at the Pentagon have been providing.

And that's when Bush's Pentagon leadership is not borrowing a page from Britain's broken past and tinkering with the notion of ruling Iraq by military force years after Saddam is driven from power. According to a leaked proposal, the United States would not hand over power to domestic dissidents such as the Iraqi National Congress. Instead, U.S. generals would rule the Arab nation and presumably control its borders, try its criminals, and decide who had the rights to drill Iraq's vast oil reserves.

The proposal prompted Leon Fuerth, Al Gore's former national security advisor, to write, "The fact that [such a plan] has reached this level warns us that there may be a dangerous intoxication with American power, and a serious loss of judgment as to its limits, among the most senior persons in our government."

But mostly the Bush team prefers the domestic, petty kind of power plays that numb bystanders with their frequency.

Given what Bush owes politically to the Sept. 11 tragedy, who'd have predicted he would push aside the relatives of Sept. 11 victims as part of his never-ending politicking. But make no mistake, the smug White House is playing those relatives like pawns.

A coalition of victims' groups lobbied all year in hopes the government would appoint an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the attacks of Sept. 11. "It's common sense," says Mindy Kleinberg, of September 11th Advocates, whose husband died at the World Trade Center. "You have a failure and you take a look at it and you fix it."

Yet for months the White House, allergic to accountability within its ranks and nervous any revelations unearthed by the commission would be used against Bush in 2004, resisted the popular cause. It was only this summer when both chambers of Congress signed off on the idea that the White House caved in to pressure and came out in favor of the commission.

Then, on Oct. 10, victims' families were told a deal was struck. Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., announced a press conference to unveil the details. Then abruptly the White House, with Vice President Dick Cheney working behind the scenes, pulled the rug out from under the families. Today, the idea of a commission remains bogged down in wrangling over subpoena power.

"It's a huge disappointment to garner so much support -- the will of the families, the will of Congress, and the supposed support of the White House -- and still not have a commission," says Kleinberg, who holds out hope a deal can be OK'd during Congress' lame-duck session following the elections.

Does she think the White House strategy was to publicly support the commission while working in private to scuttle it? "I'd like to believe they didn't have this in mind all along. But I don't know."

If Sept. 11 relatives aren't sacred, why should veterans be? They're not. The White House is stalling a bill that would overhaul veterans' disability payments, even though the measure enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House, where it has 402 co-sponsors, and the Senate, where it has 83. But the Republican congressional leadership refuses to pass it out of conference committee, because Bush's advisors have dubbed the bill a budget buster and are urging the president to veto it, even though Bush recently signed off on a 20 percent increase in the military budget. "It would be highly irregular for a president, who as candidate pledged to do the right thing for veterans, to veto legislation that would benefit military retirees," notes Steve Thomas, spokesman for the American Legion. Maybe Bush will, maybe he won't. Like the proposed Sept. 11 commission, the White House has locked veterans' legislation in limbo until the polls close.

Other recent White House low-lights include:

  • Coming to the aid of Chrysler and General Motors, the White House has tried to derail new California and Massachusetts clean-air initiatives. The administration insists only the federal government -- not individual states -- can enforce new laws that set cleaner emissions standards for new cars. But somebody forgot to tell the EPA, which openly supports the California and Massachusetts initiatives, which would help the states meet clean-air requirements. By the way, before becoming White House chief of staff, Andrew Card served as General Motors' chief lobbyist.
  • Ignoring Clinton administration suggestions that tough, new mandatory testing be established to protect consumers from Listeria, a dangerous bacterium found in cooked meats, the Bush team preferred allowing the meat and poultry industries to maintain their "volunteer testing." The result? Last month, in the largest recall in the Agriculture Department's history, nearly 30 million pounds of cooked turkey and chicken products were withdrawn from the market after an outbreak of Listeria killed at least seven people and infected hundreds more.
  • Taking election-year politicking to new lows, the White House recently leaned on 330 political appointees to take vacation days in order to volunteer for Republican candidates. The head of the largest federal employees' union told the Washington Post in his 34 years with the union he'd never seen a White House blatantly exert more political pressure throughout the government as the Bush administration is doing this campaign season. The paper reported even the scrupulously nonpartisan NASA was being dragged into local elections, with the agency's administrator flying off to make campaign-type stops with Republican candidates.
  • Looking for ways to defray the costs of the White House's permanent campaign mode, the administration billed the Office of Family Assistance $210,000 to help pay for five trips in which Bush promoted welfare reform at official events, then made fundraising stops for Republican office seekers, according to the Washington Post. In all likelihood, the White House scheduled Bush to make brief speeches about welfare reform in cities where he already had fundraisers scheduled. That way the Republican Party, which has to pay for fundraising activity, would not have to pick up all of Bush's travel costs. According to available records, Clinton also billed government agencies to share the cost of domestic trips that had a political agenda, but at nowhere near the rate Bush does. During his final four years in office, Clinton billed Health and Human Services $243,862 for 45 presidential events. By contrast, Bush has already billed HHS $210,000 for just five trips in six months.
  • Siphoning off hundreds of thousands of dollars appropriated to assist needy families in order to pay for Republican fat-cat fundraisers? There's no better symbol of the Bush White House priorities.

    Eric Boehlert

    Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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