The Whitewater scandal has plagued Bill Clinton and obsessed pundits since minute one of his presidency. Al Gore’s frequent exaggerations have inspired enough newspaper stories to fell a thousand forests. Even Hillary Clinton’s commodity trades, which evidenced no apparent wrongdoing and were made by someone who had never run for public office at the time the story arose, were treated as front-page news for weeks. But when a major story breaks that indicates that George W. Bush’s fortune appears to have been constructed on a foundation shakier than anything anyone in Arkansas or the Gore campaign could even have imagined, the media says, “No thanks.” If a candidate’s credibility falls in a bunch of shady Texas business deals and no one bothers to look into it, did it really happen?
I’M NOT TALKING about Bush’s abysmal record as governor of Texas, where he presided over a steady worsening of the environment and intervened to prevent the state from participating in the CHIP program for children without health care, simultaneously offering generous tax breaks to the wealthy and the oil and gas industry. Those issues, consistently covered, have failed to impress.
Perhaps they are too large and too serious. During prosperous times, we prefer our elections to be about kisses and sighs. But everyone, anytime, loves a scandal. And George W. Bush, the failed oil man and successful stadium-builder, looks to be sitting on top of more than his fair share. But where is the New York Times famed Whitewater reporter, Jeff Gerth? Where’s the whole Washington Post special investigations unit? Where is the scandal-mongering Matt Drudge and the Fox factory philandering patrol? Has the media bias that has tilted toward Bush during this entire election cycle silenced newsgatherers on exactly the kind of red-meat story from which they could not remove their fangs during the Clinton presidency? The circumstantial evidence sure looks damning.
An Uncovered Scandal
Here are the facts as we now know them, thanks to Talk Magazine and the Center for Public Integrity. They are, I warn in advance, complicated and multi-faceted. Taken together, they appear to add up to a business ethos that makes Whitewater look like a Girl Scout cookie sale. All of them deserve, at minimum, a much closer look.
The first discovery of authors Bill Minutaglio and Nancy Beiles relates to W’s late filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission of trades he made between 1986 and 1989 of shares of stock in Harken Energy Corporation, one of his oil companies. Bush managed to escape SEC sanction despite the fact that he failed to comply with the deadlines written into law. Because of his tardiness in meeting the regulations, Bush was able to conceal the fact that he was buying and selling hundreds of thousands of shares of stock.
Because Bush was a director of the company, this information was something that all shareholders were entitled to know. Such knowledge is crucial to the fair and open functioning of the marketplace. While others who have acted similarly have been hit with fines in the thousands of dollars, and on rare occasion, jail. But Bush got away without a scratch. The SEC never even raised the issue.
The Republican candidate for president also appears to have misled the SEC when he insisted that he had dumped his failing company’s stock in 1990 without knowing that it was about to tank. Bush pocketed $850,000 by dumping the stock just a few months before the stock lost 75 percent of its value. Bush’s lawyers insisted that he “had no material information that wasn’t already out there in the marketplace.” But the relevant records demonstrate that he had been warned of the trouble at least twice before getting his money out. What’s more, he was on Harken’s internal audit committee. (And don’t forget that this conveniently ignorant investor had somehow managed to make it through Harvard Business School.)
Why did the SEC give Bush a pass on this one too? We can’t know for sure, but it’s worth noting, as the Talk article does, that commission was chaired at the time, by Bush family friend Richard Breenden. Its general counsel was John Doty, who had once been Bush’s private lawyer.
A Texas Land Grab
A third aspect of Bush’s business career gives lie to the image he likes to present of himself as a defender of people and property against government encroachment. It also exposes the uglier aspects of the one allegedly successful Bush business venture — his role in the enrichment of the Texas Rangers. Bush initially borrowed $600,000 from a bank where he had been a director, to cover his 1.8 percent interest in the team. At the behest of Bush and his fellow investors, state authorities created the Arlington Sports Facilities Development Authority, which was given the power to expropriate some private land to build the team a new stadium. When some of the homeowners and farmers refused to sell for the low prices being offered, the Authority condemned their land and expropriated it by force of law. It did this with 270 acres of land, even though only about 17 acres were needed for the ballpark. The rest was used for commercial development that made Bush and his friends rich.
A state judge eventually ruled that the amount paid to the local homeowners had been well under market value and a bit more was paid in a settlement. But Bush apparently didn’t care. The team got its new stadium and he walked away with $15 million in his pocket. The entire seamy story, however, as the authors point out, gives the lie to Bush’s boast that he wants to “do everything I can to defend the power of private property and private property rights.”
Paying The Price
So what’s the deal? Is it just a coincidence that The New York Times, widely accused of being a liberal, pro-Gore newspaper, runs a front page story on Gore’s various embellishments in its high-circulation Week in Review one day and follows it up with one devoted to the same problem of W’s — only this one is on page A-27 the following day? (The front page held a flattering story about the Texas governor’s “no details, little knowledge” style of “leadership.”) Perhaps the media is setting Bush up for a fall, the way they did when they were falling in love with Clinton eight years ago. If so, the media are likely to have a helluva lot to do over the next four years. Too bad it’s the rest of us who will have to pay the price.
Eric Alterman is a columnist for The Nation and a regular contributor to MSNBC.
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