May 25, 2024

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We're Taking a Poll on How Bright You Are. . .
From The New Criterion March 6, 2002.

What do you think? Is the Bush administration “hiding something or lying” about what it knows about the bankruptcy of the Enron Corporation? Or are you, perhaps, the sort of sucker who just accepts things on trust and believes everything that government officials tell you? Maybe, like Roy Marshall, a 58 year-old air-conditioning salesman from Albany, you think that “the Bush administration knows more than they're telling.” But then, also like Roy, you are smart enough to realize that “all politicians do that.” Tell me about it! So then, what does Roy say to the big question? “Are they lying flat out? I don't think so.” But, clearly, he’s got his eye on them. Roy’s no fool. He’s the sort of guy who, if you ask him whether Enron’s crooked accounting practices are “widespread in other large corporations” or “an isolated case,” will be with the sophisticated 70 per cent who say “widespread” and not the 10 per cent of naïfs who picked “isolated case.” Where have those guys been?

In the same way, he’ll be with the 50 per cent who said that the Republicans’ policies favored the rich and not the 14 per cent who said that they favored the middle class. And is Roy the kind of guy who would doubt for a single minute “that big business wielded too much influence, not just with the Bush White House but also with members of Congress of both parties”? Don’t make me laugh.Yet I’ll bet that Roy also knew which party was “closer” to those Texan fat cats who enriched themselves while, effectively, plundering their employees’ retirement funds. Describing himself as an independent voter, he might well have agreed with another independent, David Olson, a 34 year-old security consultant from Portland, Oregon, who told Richard Berke and Janet Elder of the New York Times: “Certainly our battle with terrorism continues to be significant. And I support Bush in the way he is handling that. I'm not in full agreement with his tax plans and his handling of the economy. The budget deficit needs to be dealt with as one of the top priorities for the government.”

Mr Olson, say Mr Berke and Miss Elder, was “reflecting. . . steadfast support for Mr. Bush on the war but holding reservations about him on other issues.” Oddly enough, this was exactly the sort of voter for whom the electoral strategy recommended to their fellow Democrats by Stan Greenberg, James Carville and Robert Shrum was designed. “Enron,” they concluded, “has the potential to shape the entire political environment for 2002, impact other issues and reduce confidence in the Bush administration and Republicans.” It was hardly surprising, then, that on the same day the New York Times and CBS announced the results of having rounded up Roy and David and 1032 other people by telephone, put such pre-answered questions to them and splashed the results on the Times’s front page (“Poll Finds Enron's Taint Clings More to G.O.P. Than Democrats”), Mr Berke also reported that “many Democrats are downright giddy over the company's implosion. Not since Watergate and Richard M. Nixon's cozying up to corporate bigwigs wielding bags of money, they say, has their party had such an ideal vehicle to arouse the citizenry and skewer a Republican president as favoring monied interests.”

Mr Berke’s giddiness could hardly have been less vertiginous than that of the Democrats in writing that his poll “underscores the image of a White House run by the upper crust.” Such underscoring of popular prejudices and received wisdom is to a large extent what polling is for, though pollsters can rarely be got to admit it. For further examples of the politically tendentious use of polling by the media see Matthew Robinson’s useful new book called Mobocracy: How the Media’s Obsession With Polling Twists the News, Alters Elections, and Undermines Democracy [Roseville, California: Prima Publishing, 378 pp., $24.95]. I don’t know about the undermining democracy part, however. It could be argued that this kind of manipulation is the essence of democracy, which is why philosophers at least as far back as Plato have warned against it.

Now that history has ended, however, the job of the philosopher can only be to watch the workings of democracy and to laugh. And for laughter the implementation of the Democratic “strategy” mentioned above, to pin the Enron scandal on Bush and the Republicans, provided ample occasion, especially when it set off an inter-party competition to be the first to point the finger of accusation. As Congress geared up for a full-scale scandal investigation, the New York Times reported that, “of the 248 senators and House members serving on the 11 Congressional committees that are investigating the Enron collapse, 212 have received campaign contributions from Enron or its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen.” Among the recipients was Ernest “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, who led the Democratic charge against Republicans who had taken Enron’s gold, even though he had done so himself. When the fact was pointed out to him he replied that others on his committee had got much more and that, as chairman, he considered the paltry $3,500 he had received to be “not a contribution but an insult.”

Let that be a lesson to future Enrons: if you’re going to buy a U.S. Senator make sure you pay in proportion to his own idea of his importance.To some Democrats, Hollings perhaps among them, Enron may have represented an opportunity for payback for the years of the Clintons’ troubles with the Whitewater investigations, even though no illegal or unethical behavior was even being alleged against any members of the Bush administration. But I think that, for the most part, they behaved as they did because that is how the game of politics is played these days. This is also why the media plunged into the Enron story with such alacrity: not only because their sympathies are naturally with the Democrats anyway — at times, after all, they were equally enthusiastic about Whitewater stories — but also because their own idea of their raison d’être increasingly depends on investigating scandal, or any thing that can be made to look like scandal. Like Senator Hollings, they expect to be paid on the basis of what they believe about themselves.

Moreover, post-Watergate, all Washington scandal has increasingly taken place in a nightmarish, Catch-22 world, where the victim’s protestation of his innocence is instantly taken as evidence of his guilt. It is a form of mass paranoia that makes scandal to a large extent self-generating. Thus USA Today:

Even some Bush allies say the White House hasn't been forthcoming enough and worry that the controversy will continue. Scandal veterans from President Clinton's administration say their successors don't seem to have learned much from the mistakes they made. “What hurt the Clintons was the perception that they were not as forthcoming as they might have been,” says Mark Fabiani, who was Clinton's spokesman on scandals for two years. “The first lesson is, if you've got material, turn it over right away. Don't fight it.”

Mr Fabiani no doubt hung up the phone chuckling. Not only was the reporter implying that he was a “Bush ally” but the assumption that the administration had potentially embarrassing or incriminating “material,” like the Clintons, that it was not turning over was accepted without question. Likewise, Don Van Natta in the New York Times: “The rules in the damage-control playbook are deceptively simple: be the first to release the bad news (all at once, if possible). Do not misrepresent information. And the cover-up is always worse than the crime. Yet, last week, Washington once again watched as a new administration seemed to ignore the old rules when it scrambled to deal with what may be its first full-blown political scandal.”

Even pointing out that scandal is self-generating can become an example of its powers of self-generation, as when the former Clinton press secretary, Joe Lockhart, told Mike Allen of the Washington Post that “the facts can almost take on a secondary role in these things . . .For better or worse, this will not ultimately rest on whether someone can prove that someone did something wrong.” And so, shaking their heads, the media continue to report on the alleged scandal not on the basis of substantive evidence of wrongdoing but on that of public perception and poll numbers that suggest (or can be made to suggest) that public confidence in the administration is slipping. “Today,” wrote Ellen Goodman portentously, “the eighth-largest corporation in America is buried under the rubble of a scandal that may [emphasis added] reach the White House” – and she added a gratuitous play on the words “Teapot Dome” to suggest a scandalous association for which there was no other evidence.

In an equally sly way, an editorial in the New York Times called the collapse of a corporation’s stock price on account of shady dealings “the business world's equivalent of Watergate.” There may have been no break-in and even, so far as even the administration’s worst enemies knew, no illegal behavior at all, but the very word “Watergate” could not only effect a journalistic arousal but also stand for a hopeful political dimension as yet unmanifest. After all, hadn’t the administration, for all the Enron bucks in its campaign coffers, turned a deaf ear to the company’s cries for help as it was going down for the third time? What was the problem? Richard Berke’s article in the Times gave the connection all he could find and come up with this: “Republicans are especially vulnerable because Enron reinforces the long-held perception that their's is the party of big business and the rich. The White House is already a target because the administration is stocked with officials formerly involved with the oil industry in Texas.”

It was an acknowledgment that the press, like the politicians, were now simply playing the scandal game. Truth to both was an irrelevancy. All that counted was the perceptions of the Roys and the Davids whom they honored by quoting in their telephone poll, and the electoral power that their ill-informed and malleable opinions might translate into. Here’s how Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post explained it: “Enron's saga could prove politically troublesome for Bush, even if the scandal is never linked directly to the White House. Voters tell pollsters they associate Bush more closely with corporate influence than they do many other political figures.” Don Van Natta and Richard A. Oppel in the New York Times helpfully inform us that “Democrats are seeking to make Mr. Bush's friendship with Mr. Lay into a political liability. The White House, in turn, in seeking to distance the administration from both Mr. Lay and Enron. . .” Do tell! There’s behind-the-scenes reporting for you!

Meanwhile, on the op ed pages, the likes of Frank Rich were rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of two, three, many Enrons. By another crafty use of the conditional, Mr Rich aligned himself with the sagacious Roy Marshalls and David Olsons who always knew that big business and big government were crooked, noting that “Enron may be as much a cultural scandal as it is a business and political scandal. It is, as one friend puts it, as if a window had opened and revealed the way it all really works.” The context allows us to suppose that “it all” means corporate America in general, “a world in which insiders get to play by one set of rules — entree to Enron side partnerships that could turn minimal investments into millions overnight — while the unconnected and uninitiated pick up the bill.”

The complex process of Rich reasoning, always a delight to watch, takes us from the greed and corruption of corporate America, of which Enron is a sufficient witness, to the general corruption of the political process by money, since “all manner of creative accounting schemes took root in the corporate loophole land that was protected from reform in the 90's by such inquisitors-come- lately as Joseph Lieberman and Billy Tauzin, both recipients of accounting- industry largess.” From there he proceeds to another bankruptcy, that of Global Crossing, in which the Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe is implicated, to the fact that Thomas White, Bush’s Secretary of the Army, got a $10 million dollar payout when he left Enron, which was while the dubious accounting was going on (hence, White “could legally exit with more than $10 million of proceeds from an Enron division that, according to his colleagues, overstated its profits by hundreds of millions on Mr. White's watch (he was vice chairman) and has since tossed overboard most of its employees”). From there we segue to a typical bit of mind reading —

President Bush believes that his impressive stewardship of the war will make these stories go away, and so he chose not to mention the word Enron during his State of the Union address. But the country gets the picture now, and the more Dick Cheney tries to defend the secrecy of his energy policy task force, the more he sounds as arrogant and disingenuous as Linda Lay. No less an authority than John Dean has declared of Mr. Cheney's stonewalling that "not since Richard Nixon stiffed the Congress during Watergate has a White House so openly, and arrogantly, defied Congress's investigative authority."

— and voilà, we’re back to Watergate again! Q.E. damn well D, eh, Frank?

Mr Rich, the master of political as well as other sorts of hyperbole was far from being the only commentator with a global interpretation of the chicanery in the executive suites of Enron.

The more high minded version of the partisan political lesson to be drawn from Enron was given us by Michael Tomasky of New York magazine in the Washington Post:

Republicans contend that the Enron collapse is not a political scandal. It is merely, they say, a business scandal.

Actually it's neither. Enron is a values scandal, and specifically a conservative values scandal. Far from being an accident, the Enron affair is the inevitable culmination of 20 years of agitation against government regulations, employee protections and other progressive policies that might have prevented, or at least softened, the blow. Ever since Ronald Reagan took office, conservatives have treated nearly all such regulations as manacles on corporate behavior, rather than as safeguards against corporate misbehavior. While it had help from some Democrats, the GOP in particular conflated its conservative philosophy of government with a conservative moral code, while creating an environment of corporate permissiveness in which an Enron was bound to happen.. . .

You might think that some ingenuity was required to blame the Enron accounting scandal on Ronald Reagan, but similar sorts of reasoning were not far to seek from those in the press who, like the independent-minded Roy Marshall and David Olson, didn’t know much but did know what to think of “big corporations.” Particularly eloquent on America’s “corporate culture” were the corporate voices of the Washington Post and the New York Times:

Contemplating Enron's self-destructive arrogance [wrote the Post editorialist] Sen. Byron Dorgan has spoken quite accurately of "a culture of corporate corruption."

In time, historians may indeed choose Enron as a kind of symbol of the 1990s, much as Michael Milken's junk-bond empire has come to stand for the excesses of the preceding decade.

Similarly confident of its belief in the corruption of the “system” and not just of Enron was the Times’s editorialist:

The possibility of criminal prosecutions does not absolve Congress and federal regulators of their duty to reform the overall financial system. Regardless of whether crimes are ultimately proven, Enron's conduct already provides a primer on how current financial disclosure rules and accounting standards fail to protect investors adequately. No one should be lulled into believing that this was simply a case of sound rules being broken.

But whether the goal in mind was more regulation or that Holy Grail of the media culture, campaign finance reform, the political lever by which public inertia on this subject was to be moved was clear enough and put straightforwardly by Mike Allen in the Post:

As midterm elections approach, the investigations might keep a long, intense focus on a topic that Democrats see as a key GOP weakness: the perception by many voters that the Bush administration gives special access and help to wealthy people and big corporations. . . "When you have George Bush, Enron, bankruptcy, Texas and campaign contributions all mixed together, it's a huge political problem for this administration," said Democratic Party spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri. "Attorney General [John D.] Ashcroft's decision [to recuse himself] shows just how spooked they are."

Ms Palmieri was also busy supplying quotes to Don Van Natta of the New York Times:

On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats alike have pledged to work together to get to the bottom of the matter. Some Democratic officials also expressed glee that questions about White House influence peddling seemed to be emerging as a major political story of 2002.

"If their goal was to give this story a head of steam, they have succeeded," Jennifer Palmieri, the press secretary of the Democratic National Committee, said of the White House's handling of the Enron matter. "I think they are very spooked by this."

“Seemed to be emerging”? Seemed to whom? What influence peddling? Such questions obviously did not trouble Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota whose attack on the Bush budget — approximately as mendacious as every other federal budget for the last thirty years — accused it of Enron-style accounting.

That the Democrats should be counting on making political gains by the stressing the suggestive concatenation of “George Bush, Enron, bankruptcy, Texas and campaign contributions all mixed together,” is hardly surprising. But that their rhetorical strategy is so easily and naturally adopted by the media as well is a testimony to the extent to which the media culture has sold its soul to the public opinion industry. How can we help it, they ask, if the Roys and the Davids that they never stop asking for their opinions never stop returning the opinions that previous generations of Roys and Davids, equally unchallenged, have passed on to them? The answer is that they can help it by putting truth and not opinion at the center of their focus. Of course they cannot do that because falsehood would accuse them of “bias.” Besides, the reporting of innuendo, unlike that of truth, requires little or nothing in the way of reasoning powers or moral understanding, and journalism, like a polling sample, should be open to everybody.

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