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Enron, Round 1: Bush

After a few days of media hyperventilating, the first round of the Enron scandal is over--and George W. Bush looks good.

11:01 PM, Jan 15, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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IS THE Enron scandal over already, the White House part of it, that is? Not quite. We've only finished the first round. For sure, President Bush and his administration won the round, emerging totally unscathed. Bush was not implicated in any wrongdoing. Neither Democrats nor the media laid a glove on Bush or anyone in his administration. But there are more rounds to come and Bush is still in danger. Round two starts later this month with the beginning of congressional hearings. Round three involves the criminal investigation of Enron's collapse, but we won't know the results of it for months.

Let's be clear about one thing: Bush has two enemies, Democrats and the press. They both desperately want a major scandal. Democrats have been hurt by September 11 and its aftershocks. Suddenly they're confronted by an enormously popular Republican president, who now owns the national security, economic, and education issues. And they face Republicans in Congress who've benefited from the Bush surge. If there was any doubt about GOP dominance at the moment--and perhaps only for the moment--that was erased when Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was slam-dunked by the White House for blocking the economic stimulus.

The media? Well, the Washington press corps has its own special needs. One is the need to change the story. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, it's been the war and how well Bush has been conducting it. Reporters are tired of a story that has elevated a conservative Republican to the pantheon of great American leaders. Besides, a president who maintains a high job performance rating with the public is an affront to the media. Many--no, most--reporters fear they aren't doing their job effectively if a conservative is acclaimed. That this happened in the Reagan years is a lingering sore spot. A liberal president who is wildly popular they can live with. But Bush? They'd love to knock him down a peg or two, corral him, and show him who's really boss in Washington.

The press needs one or both of two things to keep the story of a possible Bush scandal over Enron going. The first is a steady drumbeat of credible Democratic charges. Once it became known that the Bush administration did nothing to save Enron from going into bankruptcy, the charges subsided. Some Democrats say Bush should have intervened to protect the jobs and savings of Enron employees. There was no feasible way to do this. If the Securities and Exchange Commission had halted trading in Enron stock, that would merely have staved off the inevitable disintegration of the company for a few weeks, not prevented it.

The second thing required to prolong the scandal story is a diet of damaging revelations about Bush or his aides from the press. Those have not been forthcoming. In fact, the fresh evidence in recent days has involved President Clinton and his aides. Robert Rubin, Clinton's treasury secretary, made a phone call to the administration to see if it might come to the aid of Enron. And Clinton, it turns out, not only played golf with Ken Lay, the Enron chief, and hosted him overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom but also helped Enron win foreign contracts. Naturally, Enron ponied up hefty campaign contributions.

As good as all this looks for Bush, it's only round one he's won. In round two, Democrats on Capitol Hill will have access to administration documents involving Enron. They'll have the opportunity to interrogate administration officials under oath. Who knows what may emerge. In any case, Bush isn't out of the woods yet.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.