Of the comments emanating from the White House in the wake of the fall of Enron Corp., none was more telling than the outburst of Mary Matalin, the sharp-tongued right hand of Vice President Cheney. Others' statements were defensive or bland; hers was a cry from the heart -- with claws.
She took no comfort in the mitigations being liberally cited at the White House: CEO Kenneth Lay's claim of bipartisan largess in Enron campaign contributions, the disclosure that Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton's impeccable Treasury secretary, tried to save Enron. She did not mention them in a seething radio appearance with talk show host Don Imus. Instead, she blasted the press as "scandal addicts" and reeled off the sins of the Clinton administration as if they were directly related to the saga of shredded documents, Big Oil intimates and fleeced employees. "They [the press] act like there's some billing records or some cattle scam or some fired travel aides or some blue dress."
It was the overreaction of someone who has had a nightmare flash about the end of an aura. Since Sept. 13, the second day after the disaster, when George W. Bush went to the National Cathedral and made a speech that made him president, he has been encased in a bubble, his polls off the charts, his critics under their desks. He is the triumphant commander-in-chief who made wise and firm decisions about the war, the chief executive surrounded by mature counselors, and the popular idol with the Marlboro man lingo and his promises to smoke out evil in the world.
Nothing has changed, except the largest bankruptcy in history has occurred, and the author of the disaster is an old Texas pal and his largest contributor -- no legal trouble there. But Bush felt constrained to demote Kenneth Lay from "Ken Boy" to a "Mr. Lay" whom he hadn't seen since last spring.
Inexplicably, in view of the long arm of the Internet, he said that Lay had favored his rival Ann Richards for Texas governor in 1994. Actually, Lay had given money to both candidates, although three times as much to Bush, and had declared for him. None other than George F. Will labeled the statement with his most stinging adjective, "Clintonian."
This from a campaigner who had promised -- "plain speaking."
We don't know what in the Enron case made the nerveless commander-in-chief so nervous. If there were crimes, they don't seem to involve him. It was a crime for Cheney to consult Ken Lay -- six times, it is said -- on the lunatic energy policy that Bush has foisted on the country. The other was for Bush to make a household pet of a man who made a killing off his collapsing company while employees lost their shirts. Lay forbade them to trade the stocks they had invested in company retirement funds when Enron hit the skids.
Enron is no Whitewater, which was a 15-year-old land development scheme that went sour under the management of obscure provincials with two first names, like Billy Bob. It was unintelligible, and while it immobilized and impoverished a large number of Clinton staffers, it never really caught on. But Enron is as easy to follow as a bedtime story. The bad guys lied, cheated and stole from the poor, as they always have. This is a universal truth that politicians prefer not to be aired in an election year.
The Wall Street Journal has loyally blamed Bill Clinton for the biggest bankruptcy in American history: "Enron was able to play fast and loose in a financial boom and Clintonian moral climate . . ." Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia chimed in that Clinton should have known about it long ago and done something.
But this hasn't helped. Over the weekend the president lost an argument with a pretzel, lost consciousness and his seat on a couch, and hit his head on a coffee table as he went down for the count. He has been dragging around the country telling pretzel jokes, to preempt late night wise guys. For the moment he is rattled.
Enron came out of the blue to remind him that he is mortal. It's always unwelcome news, as Mary Matalin could have told him.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company