Bush's adaptable politics

Steve Daley

October 29, 1991|By Steve Daley

Washington -- IN HIS long career in public life, there may have been a moment when George Bush surveyed his options and summoned up the courage to do the right thing.

There may have been a moment, maybe at the CIA or the United Nations or in Ronald Reagan's White House, when Bush faced hard choices and did not follow the politically expedient road.

If you stumble upon an example, give us a call.

Over the years, Bush has been nothing if not adaptable. In the Reagan era, he learned to love and embrace what he had once dubbed "voodoo economics."

He went from Planned Parenthood in the 1960s to recriminalizing abortion in the 1980s, from a single presidential campaign pledge -- no new taxes -- to a political accommodation that effectively turned that pledge around.

He has enjoyed a wide variety of his own opinion on troublesome issues such as civil rights and women's rights. And when the Iran-contra disgrace came along, he didn't have a clue.

As president, he's offered a number of high-minded speeches about ethics in government. Last week, however, there were no expressions of concern when a former senior aide to chief of staff John Sununu, who left the White House this summer, signed a two-year, $600,000 deal to represent a Saudi sheik currently under federal investigation for his role in the BCCI bank scandal.

Hey, if you don't give public servants a chance to cash in on their resumes and their access to power, how will you ever get good people in government?

At his inauguration, Bush winked at his pals such as Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., and cooed that Americans hadn't "sent us here to bicker."

Last Thursday, having taken one of his hourly looks at the polls, Bush attacked the same Congress as "a privileged class of rulers."

This from a man who needs 250 lackeys to go to dinner in Kennebunkport, Maine, site of his summer palace, a man whose limousine is transported by military aircraft everywhere he goes, a man whose top aide, Sununu, used a military aircraft to visit his dentist in Boston.

Bush's latest stunt is this cynical business with the leak of an FBI report regarding Anita Hill, the Oklahoma law professor who was run out of town as a perjurer and deluded dreamer after accusing Bush's Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment.

With Clarence Thomas now safely on the court, Bush and his Republican cohorts have managed to change the debate. Does anyone wonder who was telling the truth over that long weekend before the Senate Judiciary Committee?

Apparently not. Democrats want the story to go away, and Republicans want a special counsel to investigate the leak. And, last week, the brain-dead Democrats on Capitol Hill agreed to this ill-disguised political extortion.

The whole affair would be laughable if everyone in Washington above the age of reason didn't understand that the White House is a font of leaks, a Niagara of background information, a tidal wave of self-interested scoops.

There are hosts of administration aides, well-paid public servants who do little more than telephone print reporters and television performers to tell on the other guys and put their own spin on events.

If there were a leaker's Hall of Fame, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, budget director Richard Darman and the aforementioned Sununu -- and their respective staffs -- would be enshrined, and every Republican from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch to Clarence Thomas knows it.

The case of William Seidman, a Republican who served honorably as the nation's chief financial regulator and won bipartisan praise for his attempts to deal with the savings and loan debacle, is a cautionary tale.

In his role as head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and later the Resolution Trust Corp., Seidman irked the folks in the White House by talking about the real dimensions of the disaster, and sniffing at the administration's low-ball estimates on the ultimate cost of the S&L bailout.

For his candor, he was leaked on by Sununu, currently one of the principal breast-beaters over the FBI leak.

After hearing from the press that he wasn't up to the job, that he talked too much, that his departure was imminent, Seidman faced down Bush's top aide and told him he'd stay on in the regulator's job an extra month for each time the White House leaked a story about his departure.

"I worked very hard in this job," Seidman told Regardie's magazine, "and I guess I was a little disillusioned that anybody who worked in the White House would be so willing to destroy an old man's reputation just for the benefit of having his way."

Steve Daley is a Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

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