Two mysteries remain on President Bush's past business practices. Together they raise an even deeper question that will haunt us until November 2004.
The first mystery is: Who is the unnamed "institutional investor" who came out of nowhere, unbidden, to buy Bush's shares of Harken Energy in 1990?
Recall that Bush sold his Harken stock for $848,560 on June 22 of that year. This gave Bush the cash to repay the loan he took out to invest in the Texas Rangers.
What we know so far is that a Los Angeles broker named Ralph Smith cold-called a few Harken shareholders, saying he had an institutional client who wanted to buy a big block of shares. The buyer has never been named, and Smith says he has an obligation of confidentiality to his client. Smith also insists it was a standard trade and the buyer has nothing to do with Bush or his family.
I'm sure Smith would like America to take his word for it, but the client can easily waive this confidentiality and clear up any doubts. The only reasons for the mystery buyer not to come forward are (1) a desire to stay out of the limelight, which is perfectly understandable, and (2) because we might conclude Smith is wrong, and that there was something fishy about this buyer happening to show up at the perfect moment for a president's son.
It would be a pity to expose this buyer to the media glare if the transaction were innocent, but that risk is foreseeable when one buys a president's son's stock in such circumstances. The press should urge this client to come forward and investigate its identity if it won't.
Mystery Two concerns the President's role in the bogus Aloha transaction that led the Securities and Exchange Commission to force Harken to restate its earnings. It is this transaction that raises the question of whether Bush was complicit in Enron-style accounting games to mask huge losses.
Bush says we need to look at the corporate minutes. Harken won't release them. And the White House won't ask Harken to do so (it won't ask the SEC to release its file on the President either).
Bush appears damned either way. Either the President blessed these moves as a member of Harken's audit committee, which looks pretty bad - or he didn't know or understand what was happening, in which case he hardly looks like the engaged director he now insists is needed to restore trust in corporate America.
Is it fair to look at these old transactions - as well as at the cozy Rangers deal through which Bush turned $500,000 into $15 million? I posed that question to David Frum, a former top Bush aide, on Left, Right & Center, the weekly public radio show we do (with Arianna Huffington and Robert Scheer).
"It's perfectly legitimate," Frum replied, before adding quickly that when these matters have been rehashed repeatedly - in campaigns in 1994, 1998 and 2000 - you have to lay them to rest. And poring over the sweetheart Rangers deal, Frum insists, is illegitimate. "If you're going to say, 'I'm not impressed with the resume of George Bush'... that really is the thing that elections are all about." His point: Everyone understood the strengths and weaknesses of Bush's background, and...
And there's the rub! Ordinarily I'd say Frum was right - when we know the facts and voters decide, it's behind us. But that brings us back to the real elephant in the room: Half the country isn't convinced Bush won the 2000 election. If we're honest, we have to admit we're operating in a surreal moment in history - in which a terrorist threat must be faced down by a President of dubious legitimacy, whose background also renders him particularly ill-suited to stem the simultaneous crisis of crony capitalism.
It's a testament to American pragmatism that we can muddle through in this bizarre situation until 2004, when (God willing) there won't be another cliff-hanger. But the bitterness spawned by the last election - though submerged by crisis - will not go away.
Like it or not, it is precisely because a clean verdict on Bush was never rendered
by the people that scrutiny of his past remains legitimate in assessing his fitness
to lead today.
Copyright 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc