Will president fall in dad's footsteps?

July 12, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It's said that the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree, which is something the second President Bush should bear in mind as his occupancy of the White House begins to resemble in some important aspects the first and only term of his father.

While the current furor over corporate corruption and greed is not an exact parallel to the senior Mr. Bush's woes of an economy in recession, today's public nervousness about the economic and business health of the country bears with it a similar political peril.

In both cases, the President Bush in the Oval Office was riding high in public popularity when a heavy economic cloud floated over his administration.

In the first instance, the senior Mr. Bush was cruising along on wide approval of his handling of the Persian Gulf war, in which he deftly stitched together an international coalition and drove Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

More than a decade later, the junior Mr. Bush was basking in public support of his conduct of the war on terrorism following the terrible events of Sept. 11, when the Enron and subsequent business scandals broke.

In each case, a personal cloud also hung over the Bush presidencies that threatened, if pursued by an aggressive press and television corps, to dent the incumbent's popularity by the time re-election time rolled around.

The senior Mr. Bush continued to be questioned about allegations that as vice president under Ronald Reagan, he, or at least his staff, was involved in the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages swap. Repeatedly then, Mr. Bush insisted that he was out of the loop concerning the affair and that he had already answered all pertinent questions about it.

Similarly, the junior Mr. Bush is now being questioned repeatedly in the context of the corporate greed scandal. The questions focus on his tardy report of an energy stock sale in 1984, before he was governor of Texas, and the circumstances in which he realized a healthy profit only weeks before the company involved reported substantial losses, causing the stock price to plunge.

As his father before him concerning the Iran-contra questions, President George W. has brushed aside all inquiries about the old stock sale, noting correctly that the Securities and Exchange Commission, after an insider-trading investigation, dropped the case in 1992.

He has not mentioned, however, a Dallas Morning News story at the time that quoted the SEC decision as saying the action "must in no way be construed that [Mr. Bush] has been exonerated."

In his most recent news conference, when the president was asked whether he would authorize the SEC to release the full record of its investigation, he replied that the case "has been fully vetted. It has been looked at by the SEC. You've got the documents." He dismissed the matter as "old-style politics" brought up by the Democrats, adding, "There's no there there."

In 1992, the senior Mr. Bush, in seeking re-election, was haunted on the campaign trail about what he knew or didn't know about Iran-contra. But there was no evidence it was as responsible for his defeat by Bill Clinton as was his seeming indifference and neglect in dealing with the recession.

This time, whether the present President Bush will be damaged in his expected bid for re-election by the old stock sale will depend on whether anything new, not now in sight, comes to light in the matter. More threatening to a second term may well be whether his close association with Enron and other CEOs ensnared in the corporate corruption and greed scandal taints him and whether his actions to get big business to clean up its act bear fruit.

In 1992, the senior Mr. Bush's commendable leadership of the gulf war could not save him from a sense of economic malaise in the country. In 2004, the junior Mr. Bush may not be able to count on his leadership of the war on terrorism to bring him a second term if the mess in corporate America similarly damages him.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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