My ninety year old cousin recalled The Teapot Dome scandal under Warren G. Harding. Albert Fall, Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, took a $100,000 bribe to allow some buddies to develop federally owned oil fields. Harry Daugherty, Harding’s confidant, also got caught in the deal.
Harding suffered a fatal heart attack in 1923, before Congress discovered if he also belonged to the Teapot Dome plot. But Harding’s business friends remembered him. They played poker on Friday nights at the White House. The President always won. In return, his business pals earned favorable treatment and hookers in White House bedrooms.
Bush doesn’t play poker, but he did get business heavies to contribute to his campaign. Vice President Cheney appointed some to his national energy commission, including ENRON executives. Since Bush took office, 18 top corporate executives have gone to jail for corporate felonies. Bush’s ENRON buddies also face prison for practicing their "greed-is-good" ethic.
Bush himself still retains some Teflon. Thus far he has avoided the taint of personal corruption. But he may not elude Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald, who continues his quest to find the high officials who leaked the name of CIA official Valerie Plame to several journalists. One of them, Robert Novak, published it and thus broke the law.
Washington insiders think that Bush’s strategist, Karl Rove, wanted to punish Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who exposed in a July 6, 2003 New York Times column Bush’s allegation that Saddam bought African uranium for nuclear weapons.
Rove has lowered his profile, but still maintains a grip on the prize: maintaining power. The power ethos links to the torture scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and White House Counsel Gonzalez both authorized such illegal behavior to control suspected terrorists.
Illegal and also inept! Bush played video golf for five days in Crawford while bodies floated down the flooded streets of New Orleans. The media finally began some critical coverage, noting the absence of the federal government in the place where people needed it most. It also re-discovered class and race. "Wow," said one of my students, "I didn’t know that 37 million people lived under the poverty line." Indeed, the poor had remained especially invisible to the three million millionaires in the country who had grown richer through Bush’s tax cuts.
After almost a week of inaction in the face of the New Orleans catastrophe, the reluctant President posed for photo ops near the disaster scene. But instead of displaying resolve as a leader to help the poor, he sympathized with multi-millionaire and Strom "The Segregationist" Thurman backer Trent Lott, who lost one of his houses. As if oblivious to FEMA’S non-response, Bush praised Michael Brown, who he appointed to run that agency. "Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job," Bush said on September 2. The rest of the world saw the President congratulating a feckless boob who had no notion of how to operate an important agency. Brown’s ignorance about the state of calamity may have caused some to re-evaluate the Administration’s performance on other issues as well.
Bush, who had already given cronyism a bad name with Brownie, then nominated Harriet Miers, his own lawyer, to the High Court. She shared his religious faith, Bush explained in defending her knowledge of Constitutional Law, and had won Bush family loyalty for being his leading sycophant.
Another headache arose when federal agents arrested David Safavian, chief of White House purchasing, on charges relating to his former position as chief of staff of the General Services Administration. Safavian had ties to Republican lobbyist and major fixer Jack Abramoff, also indicted for influence-peddling.
The aura of a strongman that Karl Rove helped create around Bush’s flimsy persona began to evaporate. The photos of Bush in pilot garb on an aircraft carrier and wearing a cowboy hat while holding a chain saw and pretending to clear brush did not match the indecisive weakling the public saw in Katrina’s aftermath.
Will public skepticism stimulate memory so that people recall National Security Adviser (now Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice’s failure to act on intelligence that predicted terrorist attacks in the months preceding 9/11? Will people question why the Bush Administration ignored weather service forecasts that predicted Katrina’s devastating course?
Something pushed the public to give Bush a below 40% approval rating in October. In another October poll, a majority favored impeaching him, if he actually lied about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, his reason for making war on Iraq.
Confidence in Bush as a terrorist fighter also slipped, thanks in part to the torture scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and then White House Counsel Gonzalez had authorized such behavior.
He also lost support from conservatives because his insistence on invading and occupying Iraq has forced the country to incur its largest debt and deficit more than $330 biillion. As Bush defended his tax cuts for the rich in the midst of this budget horror, the media began to finally communicate information on race and class. In the post Katrina period, some reporters saw suffering and death and got angry at Bush’s sub par performance. They also began to report on inequality. A typical white family, we learned, possessed about $80,000 in assets; the average black family about $6,000. The 2005 UN Human Development Report stated that the United States remains unique among wealthy countries: no health insurance program. "Blacks in Washington DC have a higher infant death rate than people in the Indian state of Kerala," said the Report (September 8, 2005, The Independent).
The United States slipped to 43rd in infant mortality ratings. Babies in Beijing have more than twice the chance of living for their first year as those born in Washington DC. The post Katrina reporting also showed that the President, who trumpeted his "no child left behind" program, faces a "lots of kids left behind scenario." 15-year old Americans rank 24th out of 29 nations in reading and math.
While the school tests scores slipped, the US certainly moved its rating in world competition for corruption. Companies like Halliburton, formerly led by Dick Cheney, received billions of dollars in no-bid contracts in Iraq. Indeed, Halliburton even scored a $500 million no-bid reconstruction contract to rebuild some destroyed property on the Gulf Coast.
Some Americans now see connections between Iraqi contracts and Bush’s Iraq war, which costs an estimated $6 plus billion a month, almost $10,000 for every American family. Halliburton and private "security" companies have made fortunes.
Paying for the carnage in Iraq, Bush assured his wealthiest friends, would not force him to rescind the tax cut. The rich would keep getting richer. Buts would be made for programs that helped poor people. Nor would he consider new taxes for dealing with the hurricane aftermath, which will cost around $200 billion. Bush is "disconnected from reality," remarked Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel (R), who may aspire for the presidency in 2008.
The World Health Organization warned of an impending pandemic akin to that which killed as many as 100 million people in 1918. In August, Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said an influenza pandemic was now an "absolute certainty." A plan developed by the Bush administration to deal with any possible outbreak of pandemic flu shows that the United States is woefully unprepared for what could become the worst disaster in the nation’s history.
"A draft of the final plan, which has been years in the making and is expected to be released later this month, says a large outbreak that began in Asia would be likely, because of modern travel patterns, to reach the United States within ‘a few months or even weeks.’"
Hospitals "would become overwhelmedriots would engulf vaccination clinics, and even power and food would be in short supply, according to the planscientists and health experts collectively shudder as they contemplate what the Administration will do when confronted with the impending influenza onslaught" (Gardner Harris, NY Times, October 8, 2005).
The Administration assured people that Bush would do everything possible to get companies to manufacture vaccine. It ordered 2 million doses to get some protection for those who can afford it and manage to squeeze to the front of the line. But greater production of the life-saving material will take too long to help if the strain strikes in the late Fall. Who wouldn’t feel beleaguered?
"In response to increasing criticism of his handling of the war in Iraq and the disaster in the Gulf Coast, as well as other issues, such as rising gas prices, President Bush is expected to appoint someone to run the U.S. as soon as Friday," reported The Onion (Oct. 12-28). "During these tumultuous times, America is in need of a bold, resolute person who can get the job done," said Bush.
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.