Jewish World Review July 26, 2002/ 17 Menachem-Av, 5762
No sooner does the bottom drop out of WorldCom or ImClone than the press psychics insist they can detect in its dimples and crevices all sorts of gloomy portents for George W. Bush's political future. Somehow these collapsing corporate posteriors are supposed to be connected to the president, and indeed his responsibility: The butt stops here.
Some readers may recall what I said in these pages the week the Enron scandal broke. Other readers will have difficulty recalling Enron at all. C'mon, you must remember: It was a H-U-G-E presidency-detonating scandal just six months ago, back when CNN's graphics department was dusting off everyone's favorite suffix and running up little ''Enrongate'' logos, and the New York Times was full of fevered reports of the "rapidly exploding" scandal and President Bush's "uncomfortably close" links with Enron. As I wrote in January, "The scandal about Enron is that, politically speaking, there's no scandal."
And so it proved. And, at the risk of disagreeing with my old friend and Sun-Times columnist John O'Sullivan, what went then goes triple this time round. Enron was comparatively easy: It was an energy company, from Texas, whose rise had coincided (more or less) with Bush's governorship. Connect the dots, implied the Dems, and what you have here is the worst example of the Texas wildcattin' business culture from which this oil stooge president emerged. But they couldn't make it stick. And the terrain's far less favorable in the current crop of scandals. For one thing, it's not a shady energy company, but a diverse portfolio: telecommunications, biotech, pharmaceuticals, and even Christmas spice balls and cockscomb topiary, for among the fallen corporate idols is America's happy homemaker Martha Stewart, supposedly under investigation for insider dealing--or, as Martha would put it, "Here's a stock deal I made earlier."
So suddenly you're not attacking energy and polluters and Big Oil and Texans but just business in general. And, while certain cheerily unreconstructed workers' champions like Ralph Nader are happy to do that, in the real world of electoral viability that puts the Democratic Party a little bit further to the left of where they want to be come Election Day this November. Of course, if you wanted to fine-tune the attacks not to sound like you're totally anti-business, you could blame Martha, Enron and the rest on '90s boom culture, but, given that Bill Clinton spent eight years taking credit for that, it's hard to see why it's now Bush's fault.
So Bush critics have instead dragged up a low-interest loan the president got from some oil company he was a director of over a decade ago. ''President Bush likes to preach responsibility,'' said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "When it comes to his own records, the motto is: 'The buck stops over there.' '' ''It is hard to lead when you haven't done the things that you're asking others to do,'' tutted Dick Gephardt. This is the same Terry McAuliffe who founded Federal City Bank, which was deemed by regulators to be using unsound banking practices and which, while McAuliffe was also serving as finance director for the 1988 presidential campaign of one Dick Gephardt, gave said Gephardt an ''unusual and unsecured'' loan for $125,000.
And, if the low-interest loan won't jump, the only outrageous Bush-toppling scandal left in play is the fact that in 1990 Harken Energy Corp. was a few months late filing a routine letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission confirming that Bush had divested some stock and was blah-blah-blah . . . growing drowsy . . . zzzzzzzz . . . impenetrable technical violation . . . losing the will to type . . .
Oh, pardon me, I dozed off in the middle of the sentence. For the last three readers who haven't skipped ahead to Roger Ebert's illustrated guide to your Top 100 lesbian movie scenes, the danger for the Democrats here is in overreaching. By the end of the ''scandal's'' first week, the ethics bores were whipped up over the SEC's latest investigation--into Bristol-Myers Squibb for practices that ''inflated sales by $1 billion.'' What this boils down to is: Their sales guys went around saying hey, you should buy our products now because they'll be going up next year. According to the New York Daily News, ''Critics charge the company knew the resulting, incentive-driven sales exceeded demand but encouraged the stockpiling anyway as a way to meet profit projections.'' ''Bristol-Myers may be forced to restate its revenues,'' said Steven Tighe, drug analyst at Merrill Lynch. What for? No one's suggesting they didn't sell the stuff. Actual product changed hands: The customers have the drugs; the drug company has the money. In what sense is this ''inflating'' sales? Talk about a damp Squibb.
More to the point, it's a model of rectitude compared to what passes for bookkeeping in your average U.S. government department. A good rule of thumb in federal budgets is: No figure means nothing. I mean, it looks nice, it fills the dollars-and-cents box on the spreadsheet, but for all the relationship it bears to anything you might as well enter … whatever. No accountability? Missing billions? Fantasy bookkeeping? Pick any federal agency you like. WorldCom's $4 billion is less than a third of the $12.1 billion Medicare misplaces every single year. It's less than a thirtieth of the $142 billion the federal government has overspent its supposedly binding budgets by in the last five years. It's less than one-sixtieth of the new $248 billion farm subsidy bill, three-quarters of which goes to a bunch of multimillionaire play-farmers like Ted Turner and David Rockefeller.
And the great thing about government money laundering is you don't even need to go to the trouble of opening an offshore account in Bermuda. You don't need to hire Arthur Andersen, because you don't need an auditor, or even a ledger clerk. At least, the market is always, eventually, self-correcting. Given the choice between government scrutiny of business or business scrutiny of government, I know what I'd opt for.
Enjoy the ''scandal'' while you can, boys. Sometime in the next two months,
President Bush will be invading Iraq. After that, any Democrat who wants to
fight an election on ''It's the accountancy, stupid'' would be advised to rethink.
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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is Senior Contributing Editor of The National Post. Comment by clicking here.
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