Kissinger, Hicks and the 9/11 probe
At first, the Bush administration wanted no investigations of 9/11 at all. The president and the vice president strenuously argued that any probe threatened to hinder the war on terror, and last January they lobbied against the congressional investigations that were completed earlier this year. Until lately, the White House continued to oppose an independent commission. When the president finally agreed to sign the bill authorizing such a commission, under pressure from troubled senators and the victims' families, he may have had today's solution in mind -- name Henry Kissinger as chairman.
The selection of a longtime associate of the Bush entourage, however eminent, may not inspire great public confidence. The families who have courageously fought for this commission may well wonder whether Kissinger has the independence and the integrity to perform the job adequately. There are reasons for doubt that extend beyond the former secretary of state's legendary propensity for prevarication, secrecy and worse. As Daniel Schorr predicted on NPR this afternoon, "What is sure is that Dr. Kissinger will do nothing to embarrass the president."
The most significant problem, aside from Kissinger's obvious partisan and personal ties to the White House, is the same issue that has dogged him ever since he left government for private life: Kissinger, Inc. As a glorified fixer for multinational corporations, he brings an inherent conflict of interest into almost any public responsibility -- especially a job that may require him to examine the behavior of the Saudi government, for instance.
The identities of Kissinger's corporate clients are closely guarded, although perhaps that will have to change now that he is taking on this sensitive task. Among the firms he has reportedly represented in the recent past are Exxon Mobil, Arco and American Express. His business interests are also affected by his perceived connections with the U.S. government, of course, which won't be enhanced if his commission's findings criticize the Bush administration.
The most troubling example of a conflict between Kissinger's duty to investigate and his dedication to profit may lie in his business dealings with Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst. Last June, the Dallas investment company named Kissinger to its "European strategy board." (Former U.S. trade representative Richard Fisher, another partner in the Kissinger consulting firm that also includes former Clinton chief of staff Mack McLarty, simultaneously joined the Hicks Muse "Latin America strategy board.") Among other distinguishing characteristics, Hicks Muse is one of the largest career donors to the political war chests of George W. Bush.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, Hicks Muse is Bush's fifth-largest career donor, trailing behind Enron, the powerhouse law firm Vinson & Elkins (which has represented Hicks Muse as well as Enron), and the MBNA credit-card behemoth. R. Steven Hicks, the brother of Hicks Muse principal Thomas Hicks, served as a Bush "Pioneer," meaning that he raised over $100,000 for the 2000 campaign. My own research showed that the total contributions to Bush from Hicks Muse associates and relatives amount to more than half a million dollars.
But the connection between Bush and the Hicks firm extends well beyond those generous campaign contributions.
When Bush became governor of Texas, he immediately put Tom Hicks in charge of the University of Texas investment portfolio, a multibillion-dollar endowment that he shielded from scrutiny while money poured into deals with various Republican contributors and cronies, including the Carlyle Group. (An article I wrote about Bush, Hicks, and the university fund, which appeared in the February 2000 issue of Harper's magazine, can be read online here.) Four years later, in 1998, Hicks made Bush a millionaire when he bought the Texas Rangers baseball team from the ownership syndicate that included the then-governor as a managing partner.
Kissinger's alliance with Hicks remains as opaque as anything that has been described primarily in a press release. No news organization has given much attention to their relationship because it was a private deal that had no bearing on any public matter. Now, however, their relationship bears directly on the impartiality and fitness of the independent commission's chairman.
How much is Hicks paying Kissinger? What other financial arrangements do they have? Are they involved with any Saudi investors, companies or banks? Have they done any deals with the Carlyle Group? Kissinger famously dislikes such questions, and so do Bush and Hicks -- but now they need to be asked. There isn't much likelihood that mainstream reporters will investigate Kissinger, who has successfully cultivated so many of the most powerful figures in the world's media. Perhaps someone like Sen. McCain will have the courage to demand complete answers.
There are safeguards against partisan manipulation in the commission structure, which includes five Democrats and five Republicans (one of whom will be selected by McCain and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the next chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee). The appointment as vice chairman of George Mitchell, a man of great integrity, is reassuring. But Kissinger's appointment raises deep suspicion nonetheless.
Meanwhile, we shall see whether editorial writers and columnists who would have denounced the selection of such a friendly overseer for an investigation of the Clinton administration will speak up about this dubious appointment. I doubt it.
Hitched to Henry
There is at least one writer who may feel obliged to say something. As Kissinger's most ferocious critic in recent years, Christopher Hitchens can hardly avoid criticizing his appointment by Bush. It will be interesting to see how the author of "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" squares his support for the Bush administration's foreign policy with his repeated condemnations of the man chosen by the president today to oversee the 9/11 investigation.
Last February in the Nation, Hitchens ventured a harsh assessment of the former secretary of state and anyone willing to be associated with him: "Henry Kissinger the mass murderer (and pal of Ted Koppel). Henry Kissinger the errand boy for dictatorship (and confidant of Charlie Rose). Henry Kissinger the profiteer from genocide (and orator at Kay Graham's funeral). Henry Kissinger the man who told Suharto to hurry up and get on with it (and chum of Harold Evans and Tina Brown). Henry Kissinger, the man who has hired Bill Clinton's disgraced Chief of Staff, Mack McLarty, to be a partner in the firm of Kissinger Associates. What can one say about countries and cultures so corrupt and depraved that they will give succor, and even acclaim, to those who murder without conscience?"
[1:52 p.m. PST, Nov. 27, 2002]
Goring the media
My Observer colleague Josh Benson's interview with Al Gore indicates that the former vice president may be serious about speaking from the gut, whether or not he decides to run in 2004. His remarks about the current state of the national media are both undeniably accurate and quite startling in their unflattering candor: "The media is kind of weird these days on politics, and there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party. Fox News Network, the Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh -- there's a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires who make political deals with Republican administrations and the rest of the media." (He's talking about false messiah Sun Myung Moon and Rupert Murdoch.) Gore continues, "Most of the media [has] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks -- that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of whats objective as stated by the news media as a whole."
That's what the constant drone about "liberal media bias" is meant to conceal. Dan Kennedy offers a smart instant analysis of Gore's remarks here.
Clowning with McCain
My column in the Observer today also takes up the subject of the right-wing media and its mainstream enablers. In the context of the Daschle-Limbaugh dustup, it recalls an incident not long ago when irresponsible broadcasts resulted in death threats and an attempt at serious violence by a deranged listener. Not interested in all that? Then skip to the last paragraph for the best lines, where John McCain apologizes for calling Limbaugh a "circus clown." As is their habit, the proprietors of a far-right Web site linked to my column, resulting in many additional extra hits and plenty of highly educational e-mail from the enraged ditto-heads. For people who think they just won a major electoral victory, they're still feeling cranky. So it's all the more touching when they take the time to write.
[9:04 a.m. PST, Nov. 27, 2002]