Peddling sunshine beneath dark skies

July 29, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - You may remember that sick old gag about the eager reporter asking the first lady at Ford's Theatre: "Aside from the shooting, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?"

What brought it to mind was an observation made to reporters the other day by President Bush's budget director, Mitchell Daniels. "Imagine for a moment," he said, "that the stock market had stood still for the last year and we weren't all paying such attention to it. People would have to conclude that the economic policies of this administration were a tremendous success. The recession was shorter and shallower than anyone predicted."

Or, aside from the chaos on Wall Street, how do you like the economy?

There's an awful lot of that accentuating the positive going on in the Bush administration lately in the absence of any real demonstration of vigor in responding to the stock market roller coaster that has investors chewing their nails.

The president's much ballyhooed speech on Wall Street earlier this month fell flat when his harsh words for corporate culprits were laid against his lukewarm response to Maryland Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes' strong bill on corporate responsibility.

When it was clear it was going to be rammed down his throat, like it or not, he said he liked it, and even tried to claim some of the credit.

At first, though, Mr. Bush had tried to use the "few rotten apples" defense in behalf of his business world compatriots. Then he recognized that the ship of public outrage was leaving the dock without him.

In an apparent effort the other day to show that the president hasn't been in the least ruffled by the stock market gyrations, his press secretary, Ari Fleischer, reported that Mr. Bush still backs his pet idea of permitting Americans to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in the market. Said Mr. Fleischer: "Nothing has changed his views about allowing younger workers to have those options."

But the White House has not complained about the decision of GOP leaders in Congress to shelve the idea at least until next year in the hope there will be more Republicans there to support it. Such support doesn't seem very likely, with the Democrats making "privatization" of Social Security a dirty word and GOP legislators running for cover.

Keeping their heads down seems to be the operative strategy generally in the Republican camp as the saga of corporate corruption and greed plays itself out. When complaints were heard about Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill being in Russia and other far-off environs at the height of the most recent Wall Street scandals, his response was, basically, "What's the fuss?" He was about to embark on another sojourn to South America last week until the man in the Oval Office "asked" him to stay home.

The president is getting ready to fly the White House coop for most of August, vacationing at his Texas ranch, and Vice President Dick Cheney is scheduled to be back home in Wyoming for the month. While it is certainly true that the superb White House communications system can keep them in touch with breaking developments anywhere, their summer travel plans don't radiate vibes of urgency about dealing with the nation's agenda.

Where the president happens to be is not as important, however, as what he says and does wherever he is. Right now, both at home and abroad, his voice seems ineffective in shaping the course of events. Congress, not Mr. Bush, has led the way in dealing with corporate abuse. And in the Middle East morass, his friend, Ariel Sharon, is cavalierly brushing aside his muted calls for Israeli restraint.

Efforts by Bush budget director Daniels to minimize the stock market turmoil and by other administration figures to peddle optimism amid the gloom devalue the administration's credibility. A man named Herbert Hoover tried that more than 70 years ago, and look where it got him.

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

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