"There was no malfeance (sic.), no attempt to hide anything."
Press Conference - G.W. Bush July 8, 2002
This morning's press conference by U.S. President George Bush signalled an interesting new phase in the ongoing battle on the liberal left to hold the White House accountable.
President Bush had obviously been practicing his lines with spin-meister Ari Fleischer. For a start he didn’t fall into any Dubya-speak malapropisms, excepting perhaps several missing s's when he said "malfeasance". Aside from this he was on the ball, and remarkably clear in everything he said.
This morning’s presser followed a weekend of disastrous coverage in the Washington Post and New York Times during which President has been savaged over Harken several times over.
Usually on Monday it is White House spokesman Ari Fleischer’s turn at the mic.
Today Bush fronted up personally, presumably because he had been advised by Fleischer that he needed to do so to try and diffuse the impending storm. Tomorrow George will again be on the back foot, addressing stock analysts on corporate responsibility.
Fleischer could have tried to do the job himself today.
But Harken Energy is too close to George for that to have worked.
Fleischer probably concluded that the press corps were more likely to be polite to the President himself, and to be more likely to refrain from accusing him directly of lying in their subsequent reports.
Afterall this time it is George Junior himself whose credibility is on the line. Not Fleischer’s whom everybody knows is a paid liar anyway.
In the past the traditional response in such circumstances – when the media wolves have been baying at the White House doors - has been to announce a gross and imminent security threat to the US public of the "dirty bomber" variety.
Today too there was a bogeyman, but of a new variety.
Today’s war on terror bogeyman - addressed by the President in his introduction - was Congress and the Senate. Specifically the need for Congress to provide the administration with its war fighting and homeland security funding.
This fits together well from a media strategy point of view, as it ties neatly into the new line on Harken, i.e. " it’s all just politics".
repeated refrain today was:
- I don’t know why the SEC material was not filed (note: another change, on Friday it was the lawyer stuffed up);
- and but, hey, this is just politics;
- and, it is old news anyway;
- And, what's more, the SEC cleared me of everything anyway.
But it won’t wash.
For a start, the SEC did not clear George Bush, they just said, without giving reasons, that they would not proceed to prosecution.
Secondly, both the investigator from the SEC, and the SEC chairman of the time were clearly conflicted when it came to George-Bush Junior (would be oil-baron, son-of the President). The SEC investigator James Doty had previously worked for George and subsequently helped him connect with a hot investment deal in the Texas Rangers, and the SEC chairman Richard Breeden was appointed by George’s father, and was a close associate of the family.
Thirdly, this is not politics. It’s personal. Is the President an insider trader? This is a simple straightforward question. This is not a debate over what to do about accounting rules, it is an inquiry into several simple historical facts.
And finally, Harken is not old news. Identical accounting scams to those practiced by Harken in 1990 – albeit on a far larger scale – are directly responsible for the rise and fall of Enron. Same old circumstances, true, but today seen in very different light. This is about as newsworthy and topical as a political story can get.
And so perhaps this time maybe even Fleischer’s weaving skills won’t be able to save George Bush from his past.
There can be no doubt that what has come out so far in the New York Times and the Washington Post on Harken is just the tip of the iceberg. Much more material is already freely available on the Internet. And more detail can be expected every day in days to come.
Why, for example, did the SEC pull up Harken in 1990 for something that Enron subsequently got away with for a whole decade?
Are our corporate crooks as clever as we like to think they are?
Who bought the President's shares?
How come George had four SEC violations, three of them prior to his big sale of Harken stock, was he practicing? Feeling out the SEC's tolerance levels?
This is a bone that neither circumstance nor propriety ought to allow the US media, nor Congress, nor the Senate let go of. Lest they want to look as blind to the corporate malfeasance as the President and his men are starting to look.
Scoop is confident that history will record today's press conference as President George Bush II’s denouement.
"There was no malfeance, no attempt to hide anything," George Bush's equivalent of two immortal phrases from the U.S. political lexicon, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman", and “I am not a crook”.