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Published: Saturday, 7/20/2002

White House Watch: Did businessmen Bush and Cheney act morally?

WASHINGTON - What are we ordinary Americans to do? We have to fight the war on terrorism, try to figure out how to retire on no money, pay rising college tuition for our children, and keep abreast of everything from conflicting medical advice on hormone-replacement therapy to Martha Stewart's true motives.

And now we have to spend precious time trying to figure out if President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were moral businessmen back when they were getting rich.

It's true that a lot of us think the term “moral businessmen” has become an oxymoron in the top echelons. Apparently, many CEOs now slink around trying to be anonymous when they buy yachts, refurbish $50 million mansions in states that don't confiscate houses in bankruptcies, and vacation in Hawaii.

Messrs. Bush and Cheney - our commanders in the war on terrorism, our cheerleaders on the economy, our ethicists on public life, our boosters of volunteerism - call for “transparency” in business, which means stockholders are supposed to know what's going on. But they are less keen on divulging who knew what and when during stock transactions that proved beneficial to them.

Like, really beneficial.

It hasn't even been a year since Sept. 11, and many of us are feeling that the cloaks of nobility and wisdom we put on our leaders' shoulders to help us through a really tough time have slipped to the ground.

Mr. Bush still has high job-approval ratings - in the 62 percent to 72 percent range. But he's getting tiresome. Even his boyish, crinkly-eyed winks at “press conferences” are becoming annoying.

He's been out raising more than $100 million in political fund-raising. His speeches about the war on terrorism have degenerated into boring pap, childish in message and delivery. He zigzags confusingly and almost routinely, both on domestic policy and foreign affairs. His demands for cleaning up business are undercut by his own self-serving behavior 12 years ago. And when asked for details to clear up doubts about whether he had insider-trading knowledge at Harken Energy Corp. when he made $850,000 on stock sales, he rebuffs the request.

Mr. Cheney, the no-nonsense No. 2 in government, sold stock in his energy services company, Halliburton, when he left as its head to become Mr. Bush's running mate in 2000. He made $18.5 million. Two months later, the company had to reveal that business had declined sharply during Mr. Cheney's last months as CEO. The stock price fell dramatically. And now there are questions about whether the company overstated revenues and took on a risky asbestos business while Mr. Cheney was CEO.

“I've got great confidence in the vice president. When I picked him, I knew he was a fine business leader and a fine, experienced man. And he's doing a great job,” said Mr. Bush.

In other words, all of those seeking the truth should just pipe down.

Alan Greenspan, author of the term “irrational exuberance” when the market was pumped up by dot-coms that had no earnings and no product, now has come up with “infectious greed.” Unfortunately, there is no antidote for greed - except prison and hefty fines for those who cross the line.

Mr. Bush has called repeatedly for less partisanship in Washington - as if that will happen in a year when control of Congress will be decided. He should at least expect, in the current climate of business scandal, disappearing 401(k)s, and job layoffs, that he and Mr. Cheney will face bipartisan questioning. And deservedly so.

Americans' trust in government is a precious commodity. It rose sharply after Sept. 11. It is in free fall now. We need honesty, steadiness, vision, and competence in Washington. We're getting confusion, partisan rancor, obfuscation, and disillusionment.

Mr. Bush is personally popular because people perceived that he cares about their problems, that he was a fresh, honest face after the tawdry Clinton years, that he surrounded himself with competence, that he wasn't arrogant or pretentious and that he was smarter than he at first seemed.

Now they worry that big business has too much influence on him, that he isn't certain what he wants to do, that his continuing call to privatize Social Security is unfounded, that he's ineffectual abroad, that the war on terrorism is foundering.

Some of the criticism is inevitable. Some is deserved. But Americans can't be blamed for scrutinizing the White House more carefully these days.



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