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Political Wrap with Mark Shields and David Brooks

January 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, Shields and Brooks; syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard.

The Enron collapse, David, do you feel a major storm coming on?

DAVID BROOKS: It feels like the circus is coming to town — I don’t know if a major storm. The atmosphere in Washington was just transformed over the last few days, David Boies and Robert Bennett – these high-powered lawyers — are back into view from the Clinton scandals. Suddenly the Washington Post and the New York Times are running very portentous stories. You have got this whole atmosphere that my colleagues in the political press are just sending off feverish waves, destroying the ozone layer in the process. There is just a feeling of Whitewater, Watergate, some big scandal is brewing. The only missing thing is inappropriate behavior. There is no crime here. Paul O’Neill and Don Evans — the Bush administration officials — were called but they don’t seem to have done anything to help Enron. Enron failed. It went bankrupt. And so there’s actually no crime here but there certainly is a circus-like atmosphere, an atmosphere that something must have happened.

JIM LEHRER: You mean no political crime.

DAVID BROOKS: I would divide into two, the whole Enron situation into two wings: The one wing being the financial wing we heard about in Terry’s report, which is serious obviously. But then there is the political wing whether someone in the Bush administration did something wrong. We may learn they did, but so far there’s been a lot of vapor and no evidence.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I think — I disagree with David in the sense I think this is a story that people understand. People understand that there were well off, well connected powerful people who lined their own pockets in a greedy, selfish fashion while lying and cheating to the public, to investors and to their own employees and that less powerful, less connected people, many of whom who were employees, some of whom were retired, suffered. They had their lives shattered by these folks. The question is it’s the convergence and anybody in Washington who pretends to be shocked at this is just really pretending or is unconscious because this is soft money. This is what politics has become in modern America. These are people who gave $2 million to George Bush’s campaigns. Whether in fact anything was done, they had total access. The Secretaries of the Treasury and Commerce picked up the phone when they called. The White House was open to them. The Vice President’s office was open to them. What they wanted– I don’t know what they wanted. I can tell what you they wanted most of all was no regulation. That’s exactly what they got – they got no oversight.

JIM LEHRER: But, Mark, it wasn’t just Republicans and the Bush administration getting these calls. They gave a tremendous amount of money to Democrats as well.

MARK SHIELDS: 82% of their money went to Republicans. And I think, you know, there is no question, most of the Democratic money was Texas money. They played Texas politics as you know and I know in Texas, money goes to Democrats and it goes to Republicans. It’s an oligarchy, always has been.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Schumer, Democrat of New York, Senator Daschle–.

MARK SHIELDS: They didn’t get $2 million.

JIM LEHRER: But they got contributions.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not saying — but $2 million, you don’t forget — fellows who give $2 million to George Bush’s campaigns. I mean that’s a lot of money.

DAVID BROOKS: I did a few hours research into what Enron was doing in the Clinton years. In 1995 they gave $100,000 to the DNC, Democratic National Committee. A few years later they were sitting on a plane with the Commerce Secretary going to Bosnia getting a big contract to make a power plant. The next year Bill Clinton wrote out a note to Mack McLarty, former chief of staff and said help Enron get business in India. The State Department, the CIA, everybody went to work for Enron. They got a huge contract in India. During the Clinton years, Enron got $4 billion — $4 billion in loan supports and aid from the Export-Import bank and other agencies. This was, most of the money went to the Republicans, But Enron was playing the game both ways. And what I think, you know, we’re wrong to emphasize that this is a Whitewater/Watergate scandal where O’Neill or somebody in the Bush administration did something wrong. There is no evidence of that. What Enron was doing was playing game as it’s played here and that’s why I think politically it’s not going to help one party or the other.

JIM LEHRER: It is going to hurt everybody.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s going to hurt everybody.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it may very well– the fact is very simply that we’re seeing an administration responding like administrations have in the past when they have been guilty, and that is first of all Ken Lay, the CEO of Enron, Jim, is getting the Johnny Chung treatment. Who is Ken Lay? Ken who? He was “Kenny Boy” in George Bush’s nickname hall of fame just a few months ago. Now it’s, I haven’t seen him since April. We haven’t even been– George Bush flew on Enron planes. I mean let’s not pretend that this was not a close relationship. And when you give $2 million, I don’t care whom you give it to, when you call, you get your phone answered. And Jim, the Vice President of the United States has stonewalled the Congress for eight months on whom he met with — with his Energy Commission this. This week he finally admitted they had six separate meetings. He had one meeting with environmentalists after the report was filed. This is access and with access goes influence. And that’s all I’m saying and I think that is the story here and that’s why people understand it because this isn’t like Whitewater. Thousands of people had their lives shattered by these SOB’s; they were greedy, mean-spirited, lying deceitful cheating men who somehow the public interest went asleep. There was no supervision by the Securities and Exchange Commission; there was no supervision by the Justice Department.


DAVID BROOKS: I’m not going to defend the Enron — it is embarrassing for the Bush people, when your buddies – they were buddies — turn out to be scoundrels and they were scoundrels but if you find out your buddies are scoundrels, you drop them. You don’t do any favors for them; you become incredibly disloyal to these people and so far that’s what it looks like the Bush people did.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that has to be proved before there would be a “scandal”? In other words those calls had to result in some action. Those $2 million had to result in some help for there to be a problem here?

DAVID BROOKS: And the reports are that when Ken Lay called up O’Neill and Evans, he may have had sly hints we’re about to get our bond rating downgraded by Moodys, it would help if you would do something for us. And if indeed somebody did something toward Moody’s or gave them some loans or did something, then there would be a scandal. Right now there’s like an Agatha Christie novel with no body.

JIM LEHRER: No body? Do you have to have a body?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know, Jim. What they wanted was not something as much as they wanted nothing. They didn’t want a plane, they didn’t want a contract. They didn’t want roads built. They wanted “don’t ask don’t tell.” They wanted no regulation. Now whether in fact they got no regulation, whether in fact the Securities and Exchange Commission was complicit in this and they had warnings and alerts or they were making calls, Jim, at a time when their own employees were prohibited from selling the stock that was dropping and these guys were lining their own pockets and making millions and the administration did nothing about it, I think there is a certain moral culpability there. The administration has very ably blamed the recession on Osama bin Laden. You can’t blame Enron on Osama bin Laden. I mean I think we have to come to that conclusion. What is the political Achilles heel here is not exactly with them; it’s the nagging negative perception of George Bush throughout his career, through his campaign against John McCain and through his presidency – has been that he tilts to the wealthy and the special interest. And to the degree that this is in the dominant front pages, I predicted very cavalierly a week ago on this show that George Bush would dominate January. This was his month.

JIM LEHRER: I wrote that down by the way.


MARK SHIELDS: I meant last year. I mean this is a story that just is not good.

JIM LEHRER: Well, David, whether you think it should become a big deal or not, do you feel it coming? I mean the Washington Post and New York Times were full of it today. The newscasts are full of it. The talk shows are full of it. What ends it?

DAVID BROOKS: It would have to peter out if there were no Bush culpability. The story of Enron — of what they did to their employees is going to go on. That’s a business story. Whether it affects us — and political journalists have not exactly been center stage since this war went on and there is excitement when the juices are suddenly flowing and you feel like you are going to get David Boise back in your life.

JIM LEHRER: So what about this point – that maybe –

JIM LEHRER: What about this point that there may be a Washington scandal that may be larger than a Washington scandal. Could there be something that is so grievous that it doesn’t require Presidential culpability to keep people alert to it and keep the story alive?

DAVID BROOKS: The scandal, you’re making a nightmare for me, a scandal without a Washington angle. But the scandal would be about business practices and specifically as we heard in Terry’s report, accounting practices and if accountants really don’t fear they are going to go to jail no matter what happens or their firms do, we have a parallel to the ’80s investment scandal, the Ivan Boesky scandal.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about that, Mark? That it might even be larger than the possibility of some kind of undue influence or something?

MARK SHIELDS: I think you’re absolutely right, Jim. I think it could be. And add to this: What is interesting is the war has produced, according to the Republican pollster, the highest confidence in federal government and government in 35 years in this country, the sense of government is a positive instrument, can do more. And so if anything, this raises stakes on who was? Where was the watchdog? Who was protecting investors’ interests or the public’s interests? These things go on in our country? I mean is this what the market system and deregulation is all about? I think it becomes a larger political question. I think it really, I mean the whole question of let’s deregulate everything, if it leads to this sort of thing, then my goodness, I think it’s time to reexamine it.

JIM LEHRER: There are all kinds of investigations going on, the Justice Department, the pensions the five things in Congress. We’ll see if the government works in trying to correct what happened in the Enron situation.

DAVID BROOKS: There is the capitalism issue. There is also the Washington issue. I don’t want to get completely away. An intriguing bit of the Enron story that intrigues me, Enron picked a person from the Clinton administration. Tom DeLay had a fit and said that’s our job. We want a Republican in that office, and he excommunicated Enron for a while. And that shows the incestuous relationship between lobbyists and congress people, that they think they can put their staffers in these high paying jobs. That says something rotten about Washington.

JIM LEHRER: There are 12 other things I wanted to talk to you all about tonight but we’ll have to wait until next Friday. Please hold those thoughts. See you then.