Enron scandal leaves Bush feeling `outraged'

President expresses sympathy for investors, workers

January 23, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BELLE, W.Va. - President Bush said yesterday that he was "outraged" that Enron Corp. had left its shareholders and employees in the dark about its financial woes. He also identified his mother-in-law as among the shareholders who were victimized by the company's collapse.

"My own mother-in-law bought stock," Bush said, "and it's not worth anything now.

"If she had known all the facts, I don't know what her decision would have been, but she didn't know all the facts. And a lot of shareholders didn't know all the facts. And that's wrong," said the president.

Bush's remarks underscored his effort to sympathize with the victims of the Enron collapse while playing down his close ties to company officials. Enron's chairman, Kenneth L. Lay, and other top executives of the Houston-based company have been among the most generous donors to Bush's campaigns, having given more than a half-million dollars since 1993. Lay has also been a close friend of the Bush family.

Bush, speaking with an angry tone he has not used before about Enron, portrayed himself as an ally of its employees and stockholders. Some workers saw their life savings wiped out as the stock plunged and the company went bankrupt after engaging in dubious financial deals.

The president's comments on Enron reflected the broad message he was sending during a visit to West Virginia yesterday - that he is a leader who cares about the plight of ordinary American workers.

Speaking to employees at a machine plant in the tiny river town of Belle, just outside Charleston, the president said the thrust of his agenda this year would be to create and protect jobs. He declared that numerous elements of his legislative agenda - from his economic stimulus plan to his energy proposal - would fuel job growth.

"How do we encourage people to hire more people?" Bush said. "That is what we ought to be asking. And that is the role of Washington, D.C."

The president said his $1.35 trillion tax cut was a perfect example of a pro-jobs policy because it would put more money in consumers' hands.

"If you spend more," he said, "somebody is going to have to make more of what you're spending it on, which means it's more likely somebody is going to find work."

Playing to an upbeat audience, the president railed against Democrats who he said have threatened to cancel portions of his tax cut.

Aides said the president would spend this week engaging in a "dialogue" with Americans around the country and road-testing themes he will use in his State of the Union speech Tuesday. Aides said Bush is focusing on three themes: homeland security, national security and economic security.

Focus on jobs

Yesterday's focus was "economic security," a term the White House began using after Sept. 11 to promote Bush's plan to revive the economy. Analysts have said that the state of the economy, and whether Bush is seen as helping it rebound, could determine who wins congressional seats in the November elections and, perhaps, whether Bush is re-elected in 2004.

"If we're in October and the economy hasn't gotten better, it's likely that the Republican Party will pay a price," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political science professor at Claremont-McKenna College in California and an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney when Cheney served in Congress.

Pitney said Bush's visit to a machine plant and his focus on jobs made clear that he was trying to connect with average Americans to show he is fighting for their economic well-being. Bush's father was criticized for failing to do that, a shortcoming that analysts say contributed to his re-election loss in 1992.

"The '91-'92 recession is a painful memory for Republicans - especially for Republicans named Bush," Pitney said. "A president in a recession has to demonstrate concern and has to show some action. That was a problem" for the elder Bush.

The president seemed energized during his visit to the Walker Machinery Co., where he walked an assembly line where engines and mining equipment are repaired, and chatted with workers, autographing their baseball caps and signing one's shirt front.

The president said he liked the name of the company.

"Everybody who works here has got a uniform with my middle name," he said.

But as the president spent the day outside Washington, trying to push the new year's agenda, it was clear that the broadening Enron scandal was a distraction.

Standing in the way of Bush's effort to paint himself as a friend of the average worker is criticism from Democrats that he is too closely allied with corporate America. Before the company fell, Bush was close enough to Enron's chairman that he affectionately called him "Kenny Boy."

Enron executives met frequently with Cheney's staff as the vice president's task force drafted the new White House energy policy.

`No help here'

The White House has also disclosed that Enron executives, in search of help, approached top administration officials before it filed for bankruptcy. The administration took no action on Enron's behalf.

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