by Michael King
By all accounts,
Texas Governor George W. Bush remains the frontrunner for the Republican
presidential nomination, and according to these extremely early
prognostications, among prospective voters Bush even leads Al Gore. With a
reputation as an affable GOP "moderate" (i.e., not as xenophobic as Pat
Buchanan, nor quite as stupid as Dan Quayle, nor as goofy as Steve Forbes),
a complacent national press, and certainly plenty of money, Bush remains a
reasonable bet to follow his father into the White House.
Should he indeed take up in residence on Pennsylvania Avenue, Dubya can also give thanks to his randy predecessor -- for giving political scandal a bad name, at least for a term or two. For chances are that the federal office of independent prosecutor will not survive the endless Starr/Clinton debacle. Bush will once again thank his lucky stars -- because an independent prosecutor of the second Bush presidency would have plenty of work to do.
Let us recall, then, only the highlights of what is already known about the Bush record, and consider them in light of newly established federal standards for impeachable offenses. A special prosecutor -- particularly if he were recruited by the opposition party -- could certainly use his limitless authority and bottomless budget to take a closer look into the following episodes.
The Texas Rangers Deal When the Texas Rangers baseball franchise was recently sold by an ownership group of which Bush was a managing general partner, the Governor pocketed nearly $15 million in return for an original investment of $600,000. Bush and his partners used his name and his governorship to attract other investors, to persuade Major League Baseball to ratify the deal, and to strongarm the city of Arlington into condemning private land for a new ballpark, while soaking the taxpayers to pay for the investors' enrichment. The potential for conflicts of interest, as well as the use of public office for private gain, is considerable.
The Harken Energy/Bahrain Deal Conflicts of interest are nothing new in the Bush financial history. In 1986, following his failure in two previous oil ventures -- Arbusto Energy/Bush Exploration and Spectrum 7 Exploration -- Bush was bailed out by Dallas-based Harken Energy, run by Republican funder Alan G. Quasha. Harken merged the failing Spectrum 7, where Bush was C.E.O., and took him on as a director and consultant. Bush was still at Harken when his father won the 1988 presidential election, and in January of 1990, the company acquired exclusive offshore drilling rights from the government of Bahrain. Harken acquired those rights even though, according to the Wall Street Journal, the company had "never drilled a single well overseas or in water," and had to seek out additional investors (by coincidence, Fort Worth's Bass brothers, also major GOP contributors) even to finance the exploration. Bush has insisted that the fact his father was President at the time was coincidental, and that he had no direct influence over the acquisition of the contract. Besides, he says, "the wells were dry holes." (That too is consistent with the Governor's record in the oil patch.) But the success or failure of the Bahrain contract is not an issue; the use of undue political influence is.
The Harken Energy Stock Deal For Bush himself, the Bahrain contract was not a dry hole. By 1989, seven months before the Bahrain contract was announced, Bush had become Harken's third largest non-institutional stockholder, holding 1.5 million shares. The Bahrain contract was announced in January of 1990, and in June 1990 Bush sold 66 percent of his holdings for nearly $850,000. It was a prescient sale, occurring shortly before the Gulf crisis, when Harken stock took a dive. Bush then failed to report the sale to the Securities and Exchange Commission until March of 1991, eight months after the legal deadline. (Bush claimed that he had indeed reported the sale, but the SEC lost the paperwork.) An SEC investigation took no action. In any event, Bush now had enough money to pay off the loans he had taken in 1989 in order to buy into the Texas Rangers deal -- along with, no doubt coincidentally, William DeWitt and Mercer Reynolds, the former owners of Spectrum 7.
The Argentine Enron Overture In 1988, while Bush was at Harken and his father was Vice-President, an Argentine official claims that Bush attempted to use his father's name to influence the Argentine government to grant a pipeline contract to Houston-based Enron Corporation, headed by Bush friend and Republican bankroller Ken Lay. According to Rodolfo Terragno, who was then the Minister of Public Works and Services under President Ra·l Alfonsfn, Bush called him to lobby improperly on behalf of Enron's bid to build a major natural gas pipeline to Chile. Terragno said Bush cited the prospects of his presidential-candidate father in support of the Enron deal. Bush and Enron denied Terragno's allegations; Terragno rejected the Enron project. The Enron pipeline was approved in 1990 by the Carlos Menem administration (publicly friendly with the Bushes, father and sons).
Call Me Irresponsible By current popular consensus, financial scandals are predictable and boring. A hard-working prosecutor needs something sexier to investigate. By his own account, after college Bush entered a decade-long "nomadic" period of hard drinking and womanizing, until 1977, when he married at the age of thirty-one. He stopped drinking ten years later. His lengthy adolescence would matter less if the Governor weren't so fond of lecturing his constituents -- especially his poorer constituents -- on the importance of personal morality and family values, threatening them with penury and prison should they stray from the straight and narrow. On the stump, Dubya delights in sermonizing over the failures of his own sixties generation, which believed, Bush says, "if it feels good, do it." But the Governor is uncomfortable with specific questions concerning his own past, responding only, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." That vague, Clintonesque admission suggests plenty of opportunity for revelatory depositions, as hinted in an exchange earlier this year between Bush and a former Clinton aide, Lanny Davis (a Bush classmate at Yale). When Bush told a reporter that he was "embarrassed" for the country by the Clinton scandal, Davis commented, "I went to school with Governor George Bush and he should watch the kind of sanctimonious statement that he just made about the President. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."
That short list
includes only the most notorious episodes in the career of
George W. Bush. A diligent prosecutor with subpoena power and a large staff
might well find evidence of specific crimes or corrupt practices by
investigating one or more of the above episodes. At a minimum, the Bush
biography should provoke the sort of public and press scrutiny that, thus
far, candidate Bush has avoided. In that distinction, he seems less like his
father and more like Ronald Reagan, another affable and apparently
inoffensive amateur who left the hard stuff to his aides and allies. With
rare exceptions, Bush's press coverage has been timid and respectful,
generally confined to starry-eyed celebrity profiles or GOP candidate
One of those rare exceptions was an August 16 Houston Chronicle piece by R.G. Ratcliffe, which summarized the Bush business history, and also raised questions about certain more recent state government actions and proposals which just happen to provide considerable benefits, actual or potential, to several of Bush's supporters and business partners. Ratcliffe wrote, "The benefits may be the result of business deals crossing paths with a business-friendly administration.
"But a pattern emerges: When a Bush is in office, Bush's business associates benefit."
Ratcliffe raised numerous questions about state government policies that either have enriched or would enrich Bush friends and business partners, most notably his Texas Rangers partners, and especially Fort Worth billionaire Richard Rainwater, a major Bush funder.
The questionable actions include:
Questioned about these and related state actions, Bush angrily denied any collusion or conflicts of interest, saying, "I didn't -- I swear I didn't -- get into politics to feather my nest or feather my friends' nests.... Any insinuation that I have used my office to help my friends is simply not true."
In the simplest sense, as Ratcliffe's article acknowledged, Bush's protestations of innocence are probably accurate. While specific state transactions might indeed be subject to conflict-of-interest inquiries, the state policies Ratcliffe describes -- privatization; regressive taxation; state subsidies and tax abatements for corporations; the systematic use of public resources for the benefit of private power -- represent not a conflict, but a confluence of interests, between the state's major business entities and the politicians they support and underwrite. The fact that among those entities are corporations and businessman with whom Bush himself has done particular deals -- well, that's not corruption, exactly. It's just business as usual.
When the lobbyists come to the Capitol demanding "tort reform" (that is, diminished legal liability for corporate wrongdoing), "welfare reform" (state subsidies to private social service companies), "tax cuts" (shifting the tax burden downward and the tax benefits upward), or "deregulation" of all kinds (less democratic control of state-granted business privileges), they do so in the name of the people who employ them, and they expect the politicians they support to respond in kind. Governor Bush has been very responsive, often merely by staying out of the way. If his friends have benefited from his actions, it's just the mysterious workings of the invisible hand of the political marketplace.
But as the Ratcliffe article suggests, the ongoing connections -- social, political and financial -- among Bush's friends and associates are intriguing. The partners who helped Bush dig himself out of the oil patch (William DeWitt and Mercer Reynolds of Spectrum 7) are among the investors gathered into the group who made a bundle in the Texas Rangers deal. (Another noteworthy Rangers investor was Fred Malek, once a campaign manager for Bush's father, but most famous for dutifully fulfilling President Richard Nixon's demand for a list of Jews then employed at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) Richard Rainwater and his partner Edward "Rusty" Rose were also brought into the Texas Rangers deal, to a handsome return, and under the Bush administration, their companies came to benefit from the investment policies of the Teacher Retirement System, the Permanent School Fund, and the Permanent University Fund. By the way, the Permanent University Fund is managed by the University of Texas Investment Management Company, whose chairman is Tom Hicks, now owner of the Texas Rangers (purchased from the Bush partnership) -- also a major Republican donor and a member of the U.T. Board of Regents, whose chairman is Donald Evans, treasurer of the Bush campaign.
Funny how things work out.
even more curious historical footnotes. One of the particularly
interesting names that recurs in the Bush history is James R. Bath, a
Houston businessman whom Bush apparently first met when they were in the
same Texas Air National Guard Unit. The 147th Fighter Group was a
politically distinguished unit -- it also boasted Treasury Secretary Lloyd
Bentsen's son, Lloyd Bentsen III. A coincidence, no doubt. Bush reportedly
told his friend Roland Betts that while he wasn't particularly eager to
enlist, he "felt that in order not to derail his father's political career
he had to be in military service of some kind." Numerous questions remain
about just how the Congressman's son was able to join the Guard despite long
national waiting lists, but Bush served from 1968 to 1973. He was said to be
eligible for Vietnam, but -- those lucky stars again -- was never called.
James Bath contributed to Bush's 1978 congressional campaign, and later invested $50,000 in Bush's first oil company, Arbusto Energy ("arbusto" is Spanish for "bush"). In 1991, Time magazine described Bath as "a deal broker whose alleged associations run from the CIA to a major shareholder and director of the Bank of Credit & Commerce International. Bath was never directly implicated in the BCCI banking scandal, but according to a book by Time reporters Jonathan Beaty and S.C. Gwynne (The Outlaw Bank, 1993), Bath originally "made his fortune by investing money for [Sheikh Kalid bin] Mahfouz and another BCCI-connected Saudi, Sheikh bin-Laden."
"Sheik bin-Laden" is otherwise unidentified, but the name may be familiar from more recent news reports; the Sheikh was most likely the father of none other than Osama bin Laden, the man accused by the United States government of ordering the terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Beaty and Gwynne suggest that the money Bath invested in Arbusto may have belonged to his Saudi clients, since Bath "had no substantial money of his own at the time." It would indeed be amusing to discover that the money underwriting the first business venture of George W. Bush, scion of the C.I.A. and would-be president, derived at least in part from the family fortune of bin Laden, ex-Saudi scourge of the Great Satan.
There's a lesson in here somewhere, about hanging out with the wrong sort of people.
But the wrong sort of people are never presidents, governors, real estate tycoons, oil sheiks, international investment brokers, chief executive officers -- by definition. Taken as a whole, the Bush biography is not about individual corruption but about class privilege, about the train that runs on a comfortable track, with varying stops but the same destination. According to the New York Times, Bush says "the fundamental difference between the two George Bushes is that his father attended Greenwich Country Day School [in Connecticut], while he went to San Jacinto Junior High School in Midland, Texas." But in fact the train returned from Midland to Houston's Kinkaid Academy, then to Massachusetts and Phillips Andover, to Yale (fraternities: DKE and Skull and Bones) to Harvard Business School. Although by his own admission George W. was an indifferent student, he was nevertheless the deserving-by-birth beneficiary of the oldest, most illegitimate, and most sacrosanct form of affirmative action, one that will not be subject to racially-tinged political debates about "leveling the playing field" or "reverse discrimination." It's just business as usual, and therefore presumed invisible as privilege to the readers of The New York Times.
Or to readers, for that matter, of the Dallas Morning News. During Bush's last campaign, the News did not report substantial property tax exemptions (on behalf of "sporting activities") granted by the state to residents of the exclusive Henderson County "Rainbo Club" development, where the Governor has a vacation home -- because, the editors said, they learned of the tax breaks too close to the election. That the millionaire owners of the Dallas Morning News enjoyed the same tax breaks at their own nearby "Koon Kreek Klub" was, no doubt, a coincidence.
"Yet at a time when Governor Bush is promising tax reform," wrote Louis Dubose in 1996 in the Observer, "Texas Senator Phil Gramm is promoting a modified flax tax, and the Gingrich Revolution is shifting larger financial burdens to the states, at least a few of the seventeen million Texas taxpayers who will never be invited to join Koon Kreek Klub might ask: why is the state giving the richest people in Dallas a substantial tax break to hunt and fish? And if the club is as white as it appears to be (as white as Highland Park and University Park after the domestic help goes home at five), could that tax break be a government subsidy of a racially exclusive social organization?"
In 1998, candidate Bush is once again promising "tax reform," soon to be a subject of comic hypocrisy in the 76th Legislature.
A few weeks ago, candidate Bush soberly began informing television viewers that he is also proposing more "welfare reform," including withholding benefits from the children of recipients if their parents are deemed unwilling to work. Held hostage under Bush's plan would be the princely $188 a month Texas generously bestows upon a welfare mother and her two children. (There is no mention of corporate welfare, of course; that is the inalienable right of the owners of sports teams and other promoters of sporting activities.) The Governor's explanation should warm the hearts if not the stomachs of those children neglected by their parents and therefore abandoned by their government. Bush proposes these reforms, he says, because he wants to help "instill personal responsibility" in the poor people of Texas, give them "a future of opportunity, instead of dependence on government." In other words: do as the Reverend Bush says, not as he has done.
George W. Bush himself will continue to be well insulated from the consequences of his courageous moral authority. Even the most profligate of welfare queens is unlikely to purchase box seats at the Rangers' games.
For more on Bush scandals, visit Bush Watch web site
March 6, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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