- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

A legal, 12-year-old business transaction can be cast as a scandal when news is slow and the media querulous but determined.

This week, President Bush's distant oil-stock sale has been tooled into a shameful icon of big business, at least among those print and broadcast journalists in search of a chink in the White House armor.

CNN packaged their coverage yesterday as "Scandal, Inc." and "Accounting for Greed," while the BBC declared, "Scandals tarnish Bush image." ABC called Mr. Bush "the nation's CEO," while CBS said the president was "partner-in-chief with big business," a comment the Media Research Center characterized as "snidely adopted liberal spin."

The Los Angeles Times compared Mr. Bush to "a fox about to reassure us hens," noting in an editorial: "For President Bush to pretend to be shocked that some of the nation's top executives deal from a stacked deck is akin to a madam feigning surprise that sexual favors have been sold in her establishment."

Such pronouncements play on the momentum built by months of corporate travails in the news: WorldCom, Arthur Andersen and Enron. Those stories revel in corporate lust, mighty tumbles, the virtue of honest accounting and contrition among the rich and famous.

Writer Andrew Sullivan labeled the popular appeal of the genre "Yankenfreude," citing "economic leftists" and Europeans who "can barely conceal their glee at the fall of once-mighty Wall Street."

Still, Mr. Bush's quest for reform in Wall Street has brought out critics eager to paint the president as a hypocritical poster child for big business.

Multiple analysts picked apart the president's press conference on Monday, describing it as "defensive" and "weak." Mr. Bush's 1990 sale of Harken Energy Corp. stock and subsequent $850,000 profit has been equated with insider trading ad nauseam, though the SEC cleared the president of any wrongdoing in the sale.

"In lock step with the business and financial industries he has much too assiduously protected, President Bush is pushing a rotten apple strategy for a rotten barrel problem," wrote Boston Globe columnist Thomas Oliphant.

Some observers hoped to blame Republicans for the spate of corporate meltdowns.

"The bubble did it. Or so goes the newly fashionable, no-fault explanation for the cascading corporate scandals now posing a clear and present danger to the U.S. economy," wrote columnist Robert Borosage in The Washington Post, later adding, "It is no accident that the current wave of costly corporate scandals follows the rise of modern conservatism to political power two decades ago."

Many journalists are zealously attuned to minor deviations in scandal stories.

"Last week, the White House stated that actually Harken lawyers were responsible for the late filing," the National Journal noted yesterday. "That's about all is necessary for the feeding frenzy to begin. So, it mattered little that the president called for the passage of the homeland-security bill and trade-promotion authority."

Some, however, think the whole matter will dissipate.

"This overall issue will be gone by the end of the week, probably," the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes told Fox News on Monday night. "I mean, there just isn't much there. The president will give his speech. He'll try to sound like Teddy Roosevelt, and he'll do a better job of it than the whiners in Congress saying [SEC Chairman] Harvey Pitt must go."

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