The Funniest President traveled to Wall Street recently, on a mission to kick shins and take names. Since entering public life W has scattered behind him a string of linguistic pearls the likes of which many older Americans recall fondly from the TV show Kids Say the Darnedest Things. “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.” “I am mindful not only of preserving executive powers for myself, but for predecessors as well.” “Teaching children to read will make America what we want it to be-a literate country and a hopefuller country.” “For a century and a half now, America and Japan have formed one of the great and enduring alliances of modern times.”
But he was at his deadpan best in the financial district speech: “In the long run, there is no capitalism without conscience, there is no wealth without character.” Ah, but seriously, folks-seriously! Telling one of these CEOs not to cook the books is like telling a crack whore to dress better and keep off the pipe until the cocktail hour! Ba-dum-PAH.
Enron begins to seem like the good old days. That was only a billion dollars or so in flim-flammery, and onlookers could pretend it was an isolated instance of malfeasance rooted in the looking-glass world of energy derivatives. Then came Worldcom at $4 billion and Merck at $14 billion. And sandwiched between them, to less fanfare, a series of brewing scandals involving Xerox, ImClone, Tyco, Kmart, Adelphia, Qwest, Global Crossing, and Halliburton-the last concerning alleged improprieties that took place in the late ’90s when Dick Cheney headed the company. The business press is taking all this much more seriously than mainstream media. As Joseph Nocera wrote in Fortune, “Phony earnings, inflated revenues, conflicted Wall Street analysts, directors asleep at the switch-this isn’t just a few bad apples we’re talking about here. This, my friends, is a systemic breakdown. We have reached the tipping point.” Nocera and his colleagues correctly call the present ferment the worst U.S. financial crisis since 1929.
The saner heads on Wall Street, endangered species that they are, want some regulatory reform to ensure that such scandals don’t flare again anytime soon to disrupt their affairs. But talk like this is bound to seem not only reckless but silly to the president, who has never known any other way of doing business. W is a man who never registered a single success in his chosen trade, the oil business, but nonetheless managed to parlay the family name into a handsome stake in Harken Energy, which he cashed in just before his father’s war on Iraq sent Harken stock tumbling. Stock sales by insiders are supposed to be registered at the SEC within two months’ time; W waited over half a year without adverse consequence. He likewise turned a $600,000 investment in the Texas Rangers, and a role as greeter at The Ballpark in Arlington, into a $15 million payday when the team was sold. Double-dealing, something-for-nothing cronyism, and the absolute entitlement of the powerful to grab as much as they can are no more than Bush’s birthright. Privately he must be mystified by all the fuss.
Small wonder his get-tough talk to Wall Streeters was a piece of puffery. If Bush gets his way there will be a few show trials, a hundred additional bodies at the SEC-which, under GWB, is headed by a former attorney for the very accounting firms that have played such a vital role in the crimes at hand-and a shiny new executive commission to study the problem. Bush uttered nary a word concerning any of the grosser forms of institutionalized lying, cheating, and stealing that allowed the stock market bubble to assume such epic proportions-the rules that allow accountants both to audit corporate books and to consult with those same clients on how best to cover up problems, for instance, or the ones that let brokerage analysts participate in deals they are “analyzing” “dispassionately” for the suckers who comprise the investing public.
The Democrats are licking their chops over the likely electoral dividends of all this come November, but it doesn’t mean Democratic pols as a class are any likelier to push substantive action than the Republicans. At the national level the party is more thoroughly dominated than ever by the Democratic Leadership Council and its clones, whose entire enterprise over the past decade and a half has consisted of making the party a more attractive vehicle for the same corporate dollars that flow so unstintingly to Republicans. It’s foolish to suppose the complicity of the Democrats is any less monumental than that of the Republicans, and one of the worst offenders is the man many consider prime presidential timber for ’04, Tailgunner Joe Lieberman. (As I write, Lieberman is being quoted exhorting Democrats not to lose their heads and turn “too populist” on big business’s perfidy.)
If ever the time was ripe for mavericks from both parties to step forward in the interest of doing a little good-and, not incidentally, making names and power bases for themselves-that time is now. And once again we must ask, where the hell is Paul Wellstone? (Or, for that matter, his protégé in public obscurity, Mark Dayton?) I have pawed in vain through Wellstone’s website, the Congressional Record, and various news archives to find any discouraging word on the corporate crime wave. Maybe he is afraid of drawing more wrath and more Republican dollars in his race against Norm Coleman; maybe he is being Senatorial, nattering privately and uselessly to his party superiors about the issue; maybe he is just too busy fighting mostly losing battles in the Agriculture committee and rescuing kittens from trees in Willmar. Or perhaps he is awaiting word that one of the CEOs under investigation has snapped and struck his wife-Paul and Sheila are adamantly opposed to domestic violence, you know.
One thing’s for damn sure: In this most pungent domestic scandal of the past few decades, the man The Nation once called “the senator from the Left” is nowhere in sight. By staying on the sidelines this way, Wellstone is both shirking a duty incumbent to his populist pretensions and missing a golden political opportunity. About a year and a half ago, in the pages of Mother Jones, I went on record with the observation that if Wellstone broke his two-terms-and-out pledge to run again, he would probably lose. But with fresh financial scandals breaking every week, the ground under our feet has moved considerably since then in ways that should only benefit Wellstone. Is there a political candidate anywhere this year who, as a matter of style and presence, embodies the toothsome, glad-handing, reptilian ethos of corporate America any better than Norm Coleman? Yet Wellstone manages to continue running neck-and-neck with him. Quite a feat when you think about it.
Yes, yes: Wellstone has done some admirable things in the Senate, Wellstone is palpably better than the inveterate lizard he’s running against, blah blah blah. But if he continues to abstain from action and comment on the most pressing domestic matter of the day-he could, at minimum, lead the charge in demanding hearings regarding Bush/Harken and Cheney/Halliburton-he may still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. And if that happens he had better not whine about the White House or the Republican National Committee or the invisible Green candidacy of Ed McGaa, because he will have only himself to blame.
Steve Perry is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch and a columnist for The Rake.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org