Four years ago this Wednesday, George W. Bush was taking time out from the campaign trail against Al Gore to travel to Houston to take in a game.
Where was he? Enron Field.
His host was Ken Lay. This was a big day for "Kenny Boy," as George W. once affectionately tagged him. One year earlier, Lay's Enron Corporation, one of the seemingly great economic stories of the 1990s, had agreed to pay more than $100 million over 30 years (!) for the naming rights to the new Houston baseball stadium.
On one level, Enron Field was a strange place for George W. Bush to be in April of 2000. Having already vanquished his main GOP primary rival, John McCain, an observer schooled in politics might have expected that Bush would be directly engaging Vice-President Gore in hand-to-hand political combat in a swing state. After all, both Florida and Ohio have baseball teams.
But Texas was never a battleground state, and Houston was never a place where W's presence was required for political reasons. So if George W. just wanted to take in a ballgame to relax, why not a visit to his old team, the Texas Rangers, the Sammy Sosa-trading/eminent domain-wielding/sales tax-increasing corporate juggernaut that allowed him to turn a mere $600,000 (mostly in loans) into $14 million faster than you can say "Hillary Clinton cattle futures".
Ah, but there is a reason. You see, according to Opensecrets.org, Enron bossman Ken Lay was well on his way to building the Enron family into the soon-to-be-President-Select's number one lifetime donor—and for a mere $736,800, a pittance compared to that $100M for the naming rights to Enron Field.
Of course, as Kevin Phillips has pointed out, the actual investment the Enron crowd made in the Bush family is much higher—maybe not as much as a stadium name, but quite a bit more substantial than $736,800.
In the Nation magazine, Phillips argued that, "most of the Washington press corps has been content to leave alone the much larger story—the apparent seventeen-year connection between the Bush dynasty and Enron. Even without such information, it seems clear, counting campaign contributions, consultancies, joint investments, deals, presidential library and inaugural contributions, speech fees and the like, that the Bush family and entourage collected some $8 million to $10 million from Enron over the years, which is more than changed hands in Harding's Teapot Dome scandal. Depending on some still-unclear relationships, it could be as high as $25 million."
What Phillips pointed out almost two years ago remains uninvestigated today.
Why does it matter? Well, not only did Lay and his corporate minions outdo all the other Pioneers to take home the George W. Number One lifetime donor crown, Ken Lay and Enron contributed to the "successes" of the early Bush administration in many ways before the corporation imploded. Enron's corporate tentacles ran deep, and have never been fully exhumed. My own personal favorite is this little tidbit: not only did Ken Lay, Linda Lay and Jeffrey Skilling each donate $100,000 to George W's inaugural fund, but, according to Arianna Huffington, Enron provided the corporate jet that flew his parents in for the show. Now that's service.
Ken Lay involved Enron in White House personnel decisions, especially in the selection of new energy regulatory heads; and in policy-making, including the infamous Dick Cheney energy task force meetings, which are still secret today. Several key administration officials had strong ties to Enron, owned large amounts of Enron stock or had taken Enron campaign contributions in earlier races. And Enron lobbied hard to keep the Bush administration on the sidelines during the California energy crisis.
Despite all these links, when Enron began to go down the tubes, George W. acted like Bill Clinton in the early days of the Monica Lewinsky crisis. As several wags pointed out, W's extremely lame—and misleading—comments, suggesting that he had inherited Ken Lay's support from Ann Richards, and implying that 1994 was ". . . when I first got to know Ken and worked with Ken, and he supported my candidacy" was not only just flat out wrong, it was the moral and economic equivalent of "I did not have business relations with that man!"
(And when Bill Clinton lied, no one's pensions were fried.)
These were not exactly the comments of an honest man. Not the reaction of a man with nothing to hide. And not even close to the truth, given what we know about George W. Bush and "Kenny Boy" Lay.
Unfortunately, just as we were beginning to find out more about their true relationship, the Iraqi WMDs coincidentally leaped to the top of the public agenda, right before the 2002 election, and just in time to drive all the Enron/Worldcom/Tyco corporate corruption off the front pages. The national media at that point gave up trying to look into what George W. Bush and "Kenny Boy" Lay really had in common.
But now we know that the WMDs were hyped. Now the world understands that the war with Iraq was "a war of choice" rather than necessity—and the timing was deliberately chosen to influence the 2002 elections. Now it should be clear to everyone that this administration is not the truth-telling, straight-talking group that they projected in their 2000 campaign.
So, maybe it's time for another look at Enron. Maybe this fourth anniversary of George W's visit to Enron Field can be the occasion for some investigative reporting about the history of this company and this family.
After all, Martha Stewart's been convicted, but Kenny Boy is still at large. After all, Enron's corruption was not just another low-grade Arkansas money-losing land deal. After all, W's lame response about his relationship to Ken Lay is a strong indication that Bush himself felt the need to mis-lead.
Kevin Phillips once again sets the standard for investigation: "The most interesting Bush family involvement is with Enron. Over the twentieth-century emergence of modern government ethics, no presidential family has had a parallel relationship. . . However, the only way a chronicler can seriously weigh the Enron-Bush tie is by a yardstick the American press has never really employed: the unseemliness of a sixteen- or seventeen-year interaction by the members of an American political dynasty in promoting and being rewarded by a single U.S. corporation based in its home state."
Here's an idea—maybe Ken Lay could do a public interview, tell the truth about his relationship with the Bush family, let us all know all the schemes and tricks that Enron came up with, and then, having relieved his tortured conscience, throw himself on the mercy of the public. Sometimes the truth actually works—it did for John Dean.
Or here's another one—maybe Paul O'Neill could come clean about what Ken Lay and Enron really asked for when they called the Bush administration, right before they collapsed. After the nasty treatment the Bushies gave Secretary O'Neill because of his last book, I can imagine that an O'Neill Enron essay now might be very interesting.
Steve Cobble is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy.
Copyright 2004 TomPaine.com