Bush White House very much like America Inc.

April 15, 2001|By Robert Reno

IF IT WERE converted to the headquarters of a major U.S. corporation, would the Bush White House look any different?

Certainly its dress code, conventional working hours and businesslike atmosphere make it compatible with the culture in executive suites of large companies and less like the more laid-back, intensely political mindset of the Bill Clinton White House. But do not imagine these are skin-deep differences or that they don't represent profound new friendliness to corporate interests.

Business as usual has taken on a whole new meaning in the government's conduct of business. If the Bush administration had contracted with General Electric to manage its environmental policy, it's hard to imagine GE chief Jack Welch finding less fault with it. Concerns about global warming, greenhouse gases and glacier melt have been replaced by intense emphasis on oil exploration and relaxation of environmental regulation.

If Mr. Welch is betting he won't have to pay for dredging GE-generated PCBs out of the Hudson River, who can blame him for being encouraged? Anyway, he boldly sent the president of one of his subsidiaries, the National Broadcasting Co., to the New York City Council recently to lobby against PCB dredging. Like Mr. Welch, Vice President Dick Cheney and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill are in the mold of men who know what it is to meet a major payroll. Mr. Bush himself knows what it means to lose your shirt in the oil business.

Nowhere is the new deference to corporate power more obvious than in the exquisite politeness of the administration's response to the recent unpleasantness involving the U.S. plane and crew detained by the Chinese.

Anybody who expected a generic Republican outburst of anti-Chinese rhetoric has been bitterly disappointed. A handful of Republicans in Congress yelled for boycotts of Chinese toys and sporting goods -- a mindless gesture that, if anybody took it seriously, would leave major corporations such as Wal-Mart stuck with a lot of unsold inventory. But both Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have behaved with the forbearance of society matrons trying not to notice a dog dropping floating in a punch bowl.

Although unspoken, there is a shrill undertone of concern that this confrontation could imperil U.S. investments in China or cause rupture of hopes for American penetration of newly opening Chinese markets.

These are causes dear to corporate America and they explain better than anything the failure of this administration to behave with a bellicosity typical of many Republican attitudes toward China.

But, if Mr. Bush's Washington has been remade on the corporate model, he must still govern using the machinery of the old model, which is unforgiving in its insistence on the constitutional niceties. Just putting up with Congress has already required Mr. Bush to suffer limitations on his tax cut that would be regarded as seditious were they carried out within a monarchical corporate hierarchy.

Anyway, the modern corporation, however efficient, is a bloodless and wretchedly inefficient model of democracy. Obligations to minority shareholders are honored with more lip service than zeal.

Mr. Bush's minority shareholders happen to be the more than 51 percent of the American electorate who didn't vote for him.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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