Bush-league Bogart

RUSSELL BAKER

July 01, 1992|By Russell Baker

THE WHITE HOUSE professes shock and sorrow at evidence that Ross Perot likes to snoop around in people's lives -- likes to have people, believe it or not, investigated.

It makes you wonder what world the White House has been living in lately. Surely President Bush knows his own vast investigating empire makes Inspector Perot look like a bush-league Sam Spade. Or maybe it was Philip Marlowe, maybe Humphrey Bogart, with the battered old heap, bottle of booze in the desk drawer and bills for $25 a day and expenses.

Remember those awful beatings Spade, Marlowe, Bogart took for a lousy $25 a day and expenses? That's the investigating weight class Mr. Perot belongs in when compared with George Bush. It's President Bush who has all the guns, yet he professes alarm about Snooper Perot. Investigating people, Ross? Shame. Shame.

Isn't this the same George Bush who, in one of his previous government jobs, ran the CIA, America's multibillion-dollar snoop to the whole darn world?

Dear Mr. President, sir, know thyself: The FBI is yours, too. The FBI -- keeper of the dossiers, eavesdropper extraordinaire, the agency that entertained presidents with steamy recordings its agents had made with equipment hidden in Martin Luther King's bedrooms. Ho, ho, ho. What a good time was had by vital government men listening to those tapes.

That was before your time, of course. Everything clean as a hound's tooth over at FBI these days. Wouldn't snoop on anybody now. Still, it could. It still has what Pentagon mushmouth speech would call powerful snoop capability.

Then there's the IRS, whose mission is to plumb the private life of all America. No $25-a-day limit on those babies. None of those awful beatings like Bogart and Company had to take either. Nowadays it's the IRS that dishes out the punishment, puts the boot into your ribs. Takes your car, takes your house, takes your pants. You can keep the wife and kids . . .

The IRS has Treasury zillions, and computers galore instead of battered old heaps, not to mention officially licensed, college-certified snoopers who come right into your house and sit there for a week going through a five-year supply of your bank books because some infallible machine or some joker or maybe some government twit who wanted to teach you a good lesson told them your measly salaried job is actually a cover under which you're running an international smuggling ring.

I could run on about government's thousand investigating arms, but it would be misleading to suggest that invading privacy is a purely governmental sport. In a newspaper it would be outrageous hypocrisy, because what are newspapers up to when dishing out tales about Kennedys, congressmen's banking habits, Elizabeth Taylor's weights and marriages and . . .

And, well, all those tons of invaded-privacy material we provide you. You, of course, wouldn't have joined the vital men having such a -- ho-ho-ho -- good time listening to FBI tapes hot from the M.L. King boudoir. You are too civilized. So why do you read the fruits of our daily invasions of the privacy of Kennedys, Clintons, Bushes, Perots, Liz Taylors, Madonnas, Warren Beattys . . . ?

You don't, of course. It's other people who read that shameful rot. Another way to put it is to say that those other people have resigned themselves to the modern reality. No sensible American nowadays believes his life is anything but an open book for browsing by any snooper with the energy to work the fantastic engines of exposure now operating shamelessly throughout the land.

Example: Telephone a catalog-sales company. Chances are you'll be asked for your telephone number, then be told what your full name and address are, and asked if that is correct.

They could tell you your age and credit rating, too, and what your house cost, the latest medical report on your kidneys, what your sexual preferences are, how many children and in-laws you have, whether you prefer coffee, tea or milk, and lots more. These things they won't tell you, of course. Such information is privately held and given only to people who want to use it against you.

It's shameful of the White House to try to make us think Mr. Perot threatens our privacy. It's impossible to threaten our privacy. Everything is already known.

Russell Baker, who started snooping as a Sun reporter, is a columnist for the New York Times.

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