"Enronitis" Ravishing the GOP!

A new and contagious ailment is spreading through Republican circles; call it "enronitis." This condition, only recently identified, strikes suddenly and brings about a state of discombobulation, causing the afflicted, in the words of one medical expert, "to talk foolishness" when he or she is confronted with questions involving a particular energy company.

A classic case of this disorder was recently displayed on Meet the Press. (Already two research teams have begun papers regarding this episode.) The newly elected chairman of the Republican Party, Marc Racicot, was asked a straightforward question by Tim Russert: "The President first said that Mr. [Ken] Lay [the Enron CEO] was a supporter of [former Texas governor] Ann Richards. In fact, Mr. Lay gave ... Bush three times more money than Ann Richards in 1994 [when Bush was challenging Richards]. And Mr. Lay said he worked with Governor Bush ... on the presidential library with his father, worked with him on the '92 convention. Why can't the president and the Bush administration simply say, 'Ken Lay was a friend, he was a big financial supporter, and we told him no [when he contacted Bush officials as Enron was collapsing]'?"

Here was Russert offering spin-advice to the GOP chairman. But since Racicot was in the grip of enronitis, he was not able to reply, "You're right, Tim. That's essentially what happened." Instead he responded, "I think the evidence is plain that, in fact, there have been a number of different opportunities to deal with people that have been supportive of you in a campaign in a variety of different races all across the country, and as a consequence of that, there may be some assumptions, or an attempt to manufacture an issue ... But the president has very plainly stated that he wants all of the facts to be investigated, all of them to be presented so that the kinds of lessons that ought to be learned from this particular episode can be learned once and for all."

The evidence may be plain, but the meaning of Racicot's sentences were not. It is not unusual for political figures to duck questions, but often it is done in a coherent manner. Racicot, according to epidemiologists studying this outbreak, probably contracted enronitis when he recently was employed as a lobbyist for Enron. Racicot claims he was merely helping the firm with a single legislative matter and was not aware of its perilous financial condition or its fraudulent essence.

Which raises the question: what's worse -- being an mercenary who wittingly tries to obtain legislative favors for swindlers or being a mercenary who is willing, for a steep fee, to win influence for a firm engaged in business he or she does not fully understand? (Trust me, if you read the recent congressional testimony presented to Senate government affairs committee about Enron's under-the-table dependence on complicated, convoluted, and shady derivatives trading, you'd know that none of Enron's political pals and fixers -- which included former Christian Coalition boy-king Ralph Reed and current Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey -- could have comprehended what the Enron racketeers were up to.)

After Racicot was chosen by Bush to head up the Republican Party, he placed his lobbying career on hold, but he did not leave the law-and-lobbying firm of Bracewell and Patterson, which hired him after his term as Montana governor came to a close. So if he's no longer lobbying, what is he doing for B&P? "Strategy," says Racicot.

This is an old dodge. Former government officials and others who do not want to be tagged lobbyists frequently present themselves as government affairs strategists. They do not, as registered lobbyists do, travel the corridors of Congress and federal agencies, buttonholing lawmakers and officials to obtain preferential treatment for their corporate clients. Instead, they tell the lobbyists working for their firm or their client whom to talk to and how to plead their case. That is, they coach the lobbyists.

Racicot's Enron connection has been a mild embarrassment for the Republicans. Lucky for him and them there's still a war going on. Not uncoincidentally, one treatment for enronitis's symptoms -- though not the disease -- is distraction.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer also has caught this virus. When asked about Lay's come-as-you-are access to the White House -- Enron reps met with Vice President Cheney's energy task force at least half a dozen times -- Fleischer retorted, "The President thinks that access should be across the board. And that's why the Sierra Club, for example, as you know, met repeatedly with the energy task force."

But as a quickly-issued Sierra Club press release noted, what Bush's mouthpiece "failed to say is that the administration officials met with Sierra Club representatives only AFTER crafting and releasing their energy plan." The Enron Pipelines-and-Pyramid-Schemes Gang was granted audiences while the Veep was drawing up the Bush plan and, consequently, had the chance to pitch policies that would benefit you-know-who. It is tough to believe that even such a daring spinmeister as Fleischer would have attempted to peddle such audacious dissembling had his faculties not been impaired by this new disease.

Others close to the Oval Office have felt the sting of enronitis. After Bush finally claimed on January 22 that he was "outraged" by the Enron collapse, revealing that his mother-in-law had lost $8000 by investing in the company, his communications director Dan Bartlett said, "This was definitely not a predetermined strategy shift of any sort."

Then why had the President said nothing critical of the company until a flood of hearings was under way in Congress and Republicans were beginning to worry the White House was vulnerable to charges it had been too comfy with Enron?

Bush advisers told The New York Times that the President "did not act sooner to denounce Enron because he and his aides were inundated with questions about ties between the administration and Enron officials." So Bush himself was too busy, night and day, researching all those press queries, too overwhelmed with this process ("Hey, don't bug me, I'm looking through old phone logs to find out the last time Ken Lay called and said, 'I still can't believe you're in the White House") to utter one short sentence, such as "They screwed Laura's ma, and, boy, am I POed."

But -- wait -- didn't Bush have time to watch a football game and faint after gagging on a pretzel? And wasn't he able to spend a whole day with Tom Brokaw for the NBC special "Inside the Real West Wing"? Too occupied to express anger at his old pal (a.k.a. Kenny Boy)? Must be the enronitis talking.

Even the President is not immune. In an interview with Brokaw, Bush tried to distance himself from Enron: "My Justice Department is going to lead a full investigation. Some say you should have done something. I don't know what they mean about that."

Well, perhaps they mean that the Bush Administration should not have cozied up to the bamboozlers of Enron -- a move that could have emboldened Lay and his partners-in-sleaze. ("With our friends running the government, now's the time!") In April, during the California energy crisis, Cheney met with Lay, Bush's largest campaign contributor, and listened to him make the case against price caps. The following day, Cheney telephoned The Los Angeles Times to speak out against caps. Certainly, corporate-friendly minds think alike, but Lay could have been forgiven had he believed his White House string-pulling netted results.

And when it came time to appoint commissioners to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Bush happened to select people backed by Lay and happened to replace a chairman opposed by Lay. Curtis Hebert Jr, the FERC chairman, told The New York Times that Lay had offered him a deal: agree with Enron's view on electricity deregulation and the firm would support him. (Lay, not surprisingly, recalls the conversation differently.) Hebert says he turned Lay down, and several months later he was no longer chairman. (Note to congressional investigators: look here.)

It may be true there was not much the Bush Administration could have done to save Enron -- not that it deserved saving -- or protect the employees and investors. But it warmly embraced Lay's policy and personnel recommendations -- conduct which, if not illegal, still warrants scrutiny. By doing so, the Bush White House provided Lay and Enron plenty of reason to believe that they were special, that they had influence. A mother-in-law dropping eight thou does not inoculate Bush. He should expect to face further bouts of enronitis. The question is whether this condition is temporary or chronic.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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