Bring Back Warren Harding
By FRANK RICH
THERE are no coincidences. On Monday, as L. Dennis Kozlowski was
slapped with 8 to 25 years in jail for looting Tyco International of
some $150 million, the feds were making their first arrest of a
high-ranking member of the Bush administration. The official was David
Safavian, the chief of White House federal procurement policy who once
worked for Jack Abramoff, the sleazy Republican lobbyist whose
disreputable client list, in another noncoincidence, included Tyco.
While it's an accident of timing that Mr. Safavian was collared at his
suburban Virginia home just as Mr. Kozlowski was sent to the slammer
in New York, the two events could not better bracket a corrupt era
worthy of the Gilded Age.
Ours will be remembered as the Enron era. Enron itself is a distant
memory - much like all that circa 2000 talk of a smoothly efficient
C.E.O. presidency led by a Harvard M.B.A. and a former chief executive
of Halliburton. But even as American business has since been purged by
prosecutions and reforms, the mutant Enron version of the C.E.O.
culture still rules in Washington: uninhibited cronyism, cooked books,
special-favors networks, the banishment of whistle-blowers and
accountability. More than ideology, this ethos has sabotaged even the
best of American intentions, whether in Iraq or New Orleans.
Unchecked, it promises greater disasters to come.
As recently as 10 days ago, when he resigned before his arrest, Mr.
Safavian was the man who set purchasing policy for the entire federal
government, including that related to Hurricane Katrina relief. The
White House might as well have appointed a contestant from "The
Apprentice." Before entering public service, Mr. Safavian's main claim
to fame was as a lobbyist whose clients included Indian gaming
interests and thuggish African regimes. Mr. Safavian now faces charges
of lying and obstructing the investigation of Mr. Abramoff, the Tom
DeLay-Ralph Reed-Grover Norquist pal who is being investigated by more
agencies than looked into 9/11. Mr. Abramoff's greasy K Street
influence-peddling network makes the Warren Harding gang, which
operated out of its own infamous "little green house on K Street,"
look like selfless stewards of the public good.
You know that the arrest of Mr. Safavian, one of three known Abramoff
alumni to migrate into the administration, is the start of something
big. Alberto Gonzales's Justice Department announced it only after Mr.
Safavian had appeared in court and had been released without bail. The
gambit was clearly intended to keep the story off television, and it
It won't for long. The Enron odor emanating from Mr. Safavian is of a
piece with the rest of the cronyism in the Katrina preparedness
package. The handing off of FEMA from President Bush's 2000 campaign
manager, Joe Allbaugh, to Mr. Allbaugh's even less qualified buddy,
Michael Brown, in 2003 is now notorious. (The two men have been
friends for 25 years but were not college roommates, as I wrote here
last week.) But that's only the beginning: the placement of hacks like
"Brownie" and Mr. Safavian in crucial jobs hasn't been slowed one whit
by what went down on their watch in New Orleans.
Witness the nomination of Julie Myers as the new head of immigration
and customs enforcement at the Homeland Security Department. Though
the White House attacked the diplomat Joseph Wilson for nepotism
because he undertook a single pro bono intelligence mission while his
wife was at the C.I.A., it thought nothing of handing this huge job to
a nepotistic twofer: Ms. Myers is the niece of Gen. Richard Myers and
has just married the chief of staff for the homeland security
secretary, Michael Chertoff. Her qualifications for running an agency
with more than 20,000 employees and a $4 billion budget include
serving as an associate counsel under Kenneth Starr; in that job, she
helped mastermind the costly and doomed prosecution of Susan McDougal,
and was outwitted at every turn by the defense lawyer Mark Geragos.
Ms. Myers is only the latest example of Mr. Chertoff's rolling the
dice with Americans' safety during his brief tenure in Homeland
Security. After the bombings in London in July, he vowed to maximize
his department's "finite human and financial capital to attain the
optimal state of preparedness." Yet the very same day, the president
nominated Tracy Henke as Homeland Security's new executive director of
the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and
Preparedness. Ms. Henke, a John Ashcroft political appointee at the
Justice Department, has since been unmasked as an Enron-style spinner
of numbers. As Eric Lichtblau of The Times reported in August, it was
she who ordered the highly regarded nonpartisan head of the Bureau of
Justice Statistics, Lawrence Greenfeld, to delete a reference to
politically embarrassing data in a government press release for a
report on racial profiling. When Mr. Greenfeld complained, he was
Imagine Ms. Henke, in her Homeland Security job, having sway over
press releases about our disaster readiness. There is likely to be
nothing but good news until it's too late. But if the hiring of the
likes of Ms. Henke, Ms. Myers and Mr. Safavian is half of the equation
in Enron governance, the other half is the punishing of veteran civil
servants like Mr. Greenfeld for doing their jobs honestly. Even as it
fills its ranks with Abramoff golf-junket partners, political flunkies
and underemployed relatives, the administration silences those who,
like Sherron Watkins at Enron, might blow the whistle on any Kozlowski
or Ebbers or Rigas fleecing or betraying the taxpayers. Three weeks
before Mr. Safavian's arrest, the Army Corps of Engineers demoted
another procurement official, Bunnatine Greenhouse, who was a 20-year
veteran in her field. Her crime was not obstructing justice but
pursuing it by vehemently questioning irregularities in the awarding
of some $7 billion worth of no-bid contracts in Iraq to the
Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root.
Ms. Greenhouse and Mr. Greenfeld are only two of the many
whistle-blowers done in by this administration so far. (Congressman
Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, lists nine on his Web site.) Even
top government officials who are not whistle-blowers, merely
truth-tellers, are axed. Lawrence Lindsey, the president's chief
economic adviser, was pushed out after he accurately projected the
cost of the Iraq war at $100 billion to $200 billion. Gen. Eric
Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, was shunted aside after he
accurately estimated the number of required troops ("several hundred
thousand") for securing Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, who
presented rosy scenarios of getting the job done with Iraqi oil income
and low troop deployments, stayed on to bungle the war.
Their errors were compounded when the administration staffed the
post-Saddam American occupation with exactly the same kind of
appointees it would later bring to homeland security: the two heads of
"private sector development" in Iraq were a former Bush fund-raiser in
Connecticut and a venture capitalist who just happened to be Ari
Fleischer's brother. As The Washington Post reported last year, major
roles in the L. Paul Bremer regime were given to 20-somethings with no
foreign service experience or knowledge of Arabic simply because they
had posted their résumés at the Heritage Foundation, the same
conservative think tank where Mr. Bremer had chaired a task force.
The damage done to the mission in Iraq and homeland security alike by
Enron governance is immeasurable. Administration apologists who now
claim that hurricane relief will bring still more examples of
innovative, C.E.O.-style governmental enterprise (Mr. Bush's "Gulf
Opportunity Zone," for instance) conveniently sidestep the harsh truth
that such schemes are destined to be as empty and corrupt as Andrew
Fastow's Raptor partnerships at Enron once they're staffed from the
apparently infinite crony talent pool.
YET it's not only the administration that is to blame, any more than
it is only the executives who are at fault when a corporation rots.
Culpability also belongs to the board that rubber-stamps the
shenanigans - to wit, Congress. Republicans in the Senate are led by
Bill Frist, who, in the grandest Enron manner, claimed last week that
it was to avoid a conflict of interest that his supposed "blind trust"
unloaded all of his holdings in a Frist family-founded company just
before its stock tanked. (Federal prosecutors and the S.E.C. are
investigating.) As for the Democrats, they are nonpareil at posturing
about the unstoppable nomination of John Roberts - a conservative, to
be sure, but the rare Bush nominee who seems both qualified for his
job and unsullied by ethical blemishes. Yet when David Safavian was up
for a job involving hundreds of billions of dollars, and much of his
dubious résumé was fully known, he was approved by the ranking
Democrat, Joe Lieberman, and all his colleagues of both parties on the
Governmental Affairs Committee.
Which is to say that the rest of us, the individual shareholders in
government who have voted in our Enron-era politicians, are