Say it ain't so, Henry

March 22, 1994|By William Safire

EIGHT members of the great Chicago White Sox team had just been indicted for conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. A young fan, tears in his eyes, ran up to Shoeless Joe Jackson and pleaded: "Say it ain't so, Joe."

I feel that way about House Banking Chairman Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas. He was my hero. For years, while Beltway elitists joined bankers' lobbyists to scoff at his ponderous style, I admired his courage in taking on the titans of the executive branch and the regulatory agencies.

Long before the Banca Lavoro affair blossomed into the Iraqgate scandal, it was Mr. Gonzalez who saw through the flimflam of the U.S. attorney in Atlanta. Chairman Gonzalez, droning on late at night to an empty House chamber, put into the Congressional Record evidence of the Justice Department's connivance in silencing inquiry into President Bush's misbegotten financing of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

That was during a Republican administration. Surely, I thought, when the moment came for investigation into the savings and loan debacle and abuse of federal power in discouraging and "monitoring" of criminal referrals of bank regulatory agencies, Chairman Gonzalez would see his nonpartisan duty and lead the way in Whitewater.

Last month, as evidence mounted of White House and Treasury meddling in a banking prosecution -- and as the need for the Banking Committee's oversight became urgent -- I called my frequent source and asked: Henry, where are you?

"As soon as I see some legislative purpose to hearings," he promised, "I'll hold them." Pressed about the oversight responsibility of his Banking Committee, Chairman Gonzalez pointedly noted that "several crack staffers" from the Republican minority were hard at work and he would study their findings. I wrote reassured; Henry might not be in the forefront, but would do the right thing.

What a foolishly idealistic pundit am I. That was before staffers working for Rep. Jim Leach, the soft-spoken Iowan who is the Banking Committee's ranking Republican, began hitting pay dirt about the costly manipulation of Madison Guaranty by the Clintons' lawyers and partners.

At that point, Henry the Unstoppable was transformed into Henry the Stopper. Nothing is subtle about the Gonzalez stonewalling: never in the history of the U.S. Congress has there been such a blatant effort by a committee chairman to protect the White House by strangling a needed investigation in its crib.

Hearings? Henry won't hear of them. Although he cannot block the lawfully mandated semiannual oversight hearing of the Resolution Trust Corp., he insists that all the witnesses be jammed into a single day on Thursday of this week. When Jim Leach offered to postpone this hearing a few weeks to accommodate the nonindependent counsel's desire for first bite the testimony apple, Henry said nothing doing: one day now or never.

Worse, by notifying administration witnesses called by Mr. Leach that they do not have to cooperate, he undermines the House's power to check the executive branch. This is unprecedented partisanship, probably against House rules, but the Democrat in the speaker's chair, Tom Foley, isn't enforcing rules that might embarrass Democrats.

Who is this Leach? He's the last of the Rockefeller-Javits Republicans, a pariah at national conventions; yet this unreconstructed moderate is shrilly denounced as politically motivated by Clinton crony David Wilhelm, the Democratic National Committee's pit chihuahua.

Henry, listen to your longtime admirers: You are turning Thursday's hearing into a televised trial of the Democratic stonewall. Every time Mr. Leach asks a searching question on C-SPAN, and you rule it out of order or not germane -- that will infuriate the watching public. Every wrongful rap of your gavel will drive a nail in the administration's coffin.

Repent before it's too late. Don't fall for "unless it's criminal, it remains secret." Remember Shoeless Joe, acquitted by a jury, but driven from the playing field forever by the overseer demanded by the fans.

Do not bring shame and obloquy on the good citizens of San Antonio, and on Clinton voters everywhere, by exchanging your hard-earned reputation as fearless maverick for the shoddy shield of partisan hypocrite.

Say it ain't so, Henry.

=1 William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

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