Vice President's Clintonesque Stonewalling Leads To Assumed Guilt

1 February 2002

By Stentor Danielson

I can’t say how much influence Enron’s political donations have had over policymakers in Washington, or whether any of our elected officials are guilty of any wrongdoing. But the Bush Administration, and in particular Vice President Dick Cheney, are doing their best to make it look that way.

Enron’s biggest influence is alleged to be through the energy plan drafted by a task force that Cheney headed. Cheney has said he will not release the task force’s records to investigators, claiming that would undermine the administration’s ability to have frank and confidential discussions with interested parties. President Bush has backed Cheney’s decision, but the General Accounting Office (GAO) has sued the Vice President in order to secure the records.

The logic that makes refusal to provide evidence into evidence for guilt is fairly straightforward. By trying to hide the records of the energy task force, Cheney makes it clear that there is something to hide in those records -- otherwise, he would have handed them over so as to defuse the scandal before it even began. "Look, here’s proof nothing untoward happened."

What would Cheney want to hide? Obviously, something that reflects poorly on him, members of the task force and/or the administration as a whole. This means it is reasonable to assume that he is guilty of something, and it is probably unseemly involvement with Enron. By refusing to show evidence that we know exists, Cheney has shifted the burden of proof onto himself and others who claim the administration did nothing wrong.

This is obviously not a legal standard. But it seems likely enough to me, and I doubt I am the only American who can follow the argument I have outlined. If Cheney and Bush continue to act guilty, it is only a matter of time before the American people start to assume they are guilty.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken earlier this week found that seven in 10 Americans think the administration should turn over any records of its dealings with Enron. Persistent failure to do so could weaken both Bush’s approval ratings and the image of the Republican Party. Republicans are particularly vulnerable to the charge of being bought and sold by businesses, which makes it all the more important for them to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. And rest assured that the Democrats will use that charge in campaigning for the midterm elections in November (conveniently overlooking their own ties to Enron, of course).

Collectively, the effect of this is to counteract the administration’s attempt to keep Enron’s collapse from becoming a political scandal. Avoiding scandal is an easier task for Bush and Cheney than it was for Bill Clinton and Rep. Gary Condit, as influence buying is not as juicy a story as sex and there is the War on Terror (and the public’s hearty approval of Bush’s actions in that arena) to occupy the media and the people. Doubtless the administration thought that if it hid any evidence of wrongdoing, the scandal would blow over.

Unfortunately, the scandal has caught on more than expected, with high-placed suicide, document shredding at corporate headquarters and the startling bipartisan breadth of Enron’s political influence making headlines. The public and the media are focusing more on allegations of corruption, and won’t simply ignore the issue if Cheney refuses to cooperate. Yet the administration insists on sticking to its stonewalling plan. In doing so, the administration creates another big angle to the story, one that reflects only negatively on our leaders. They set the stage for speculation and assumptions that are almost guaranteed to inflate the scope of Enron’s influence -- recall that there were a number of policies enacted that went against Enron’s recommendations, including Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which would have boosted Enron’s sales of natural gas as an alternative to dirtier fuels. Had the administration come clean right away, they could more easily handle the charges of actual wrongdoing.

To see the problems inherent in stonewalling, we need look no further than Bush’s predecessor, Clinton. Although the Monica Lewinsky scandal was superficially about an affair between Lewinsky and Clinton, the central charge of the resulting impeachment was not adultery, but lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Had Clinton come out and admitted his relationship with Lewinsky, his opponents would not have been able to impeach him. He may have even scored some honesty points.

The two most enduring Clintonisms illustrate this point. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," is remembered because it turned out to be an outright lie that continues to haunt him. And his statement that "it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is" is taken as the epitome of trying to avoid, rather than face up to, his situation. Homer Simpson may think weaseling out of things is what separates us from the animals (except the weasel), but it has proven not to be good practice for politicians.

The Bush administration is hardly new to using secrecy and claims of executive privilege to hide information. Last year, Bush signed an executive order allowing him, at his own discretion and without need to justify the decision to anyone, to bar access to records from Ronald Reagan’s presidency that the law says the public is entitled to see.

Cheney’s defense of keeping the records private, saying that it would compromise the confidentiality of his meetings with the task force to decide on a national energy plan, and therefore weaken the presidency, is spurious. The public has a right to know how its laws are made. Public oversight is fundamental to the operation of democracy -- the public needs to know exactly what kind of a job our leaders are doing, so that they know whether or not to vote for them in the next election. That vulnerability to public opinion, in turn, is meant to keep leaders from indulging in self-serving corruption. By refusing to release the records, Cheney is, in effect, weakening democracy, which is more fundamental than the office of the presidency.

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