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A Team of Old Pols, Pals. . .and Many Peccadilloes

<i> Kevin Phillips is publisher of the American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly</i>

The lesson of the Senate’s rejection of John Tower as defense secretary is that President George Bush should never have picked so slapdash a Cabinet--old pals, multimillionaires and textbook conflict-of-interest cases--after winning such a sour presidential campaign with so limited a mandate. The Democrats’ temptation to get even was predictable.

And this may only be the beginning. One of the least capable Administrations in recent U.S. history seems to be stumbling into a four-year dogfight with an underwhelming opposition Congress--in part because neither has much larger vision or philosophy to get in the way. Trivialization is the name of the game when a Democratic party that elects Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to be chairman of the Senate Education and Labor Committee spends day after day belaboring Tower’s reputation for chasing skirts and popping corks.

In a sense, the debate just concluded underscores how little Washington’s Republicans and Democrats stand for beyond prerogatives and power. One intellectual vacuum is criticizing another. If either side has a meaningful agenda for this country--serious answers for pressing national problems--it’s well hidden among the scandals, global junkets and eight-second sound bites.

What provoked Congress, of course, was the Republican attack on Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis; and it is pretty much this same kind of attack that Senate Democrats have been leveling against Tower. During the campaign, legitimate--if exaggerated--negative portraits were blended with occasional dollops of unsubstantiated innuendo--for example, midsummer’s trashy White House hint of Dukakis’ possible mental illness. The precedent may have borne more fruit than most of us realized.

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It’s bad enough that shallow federal election campaigns tend to become dirty ones. The new prospect is: Shallow Washington capacities for governance can breed similar combativeness between Congress and the executive branch.

Without some major mood-shift, the next four years could be mean. Federal judicial confirmations could turn into latter-day Spanish Inquisitions. The chairmen of the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee--hatchet men who earned their reputations stacking Democratic electoral cadavers--have served notice that Democratic congressional incumbents can expect personal attacks in 1990. Errant senior Bush Administration officials, in turn, will have to worry about special prosecutors. And when the long-awaited committee report on Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright’s ethics problems comes out, Wright can look for the same careful, bipartisan consideration meted out to Tower.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been fooling themselves by trumpeting Bush’s prerogative to pick anyone he wants for his Cabinet. That’s unrealistic, even by pre-1988 political yardsticks. Back in 1977, Tower himself cited the Senate’s advise-and-consent function in unsuccessfully opposing new President Jimmy Carter’s selection of Paul C. Warnke as arms control and disarmament adviser. One could also note John F. Kennedy’s caution in 1961 after narrowly winning the White House in an election much like Bush’s where the opposition scored simultaneous gains in Congress and the states. Well aware how much this limited any “mandate,” Kennedy picked two Republicans, Robert S. McNamara and C. Douglas Dillon, to head the Defense and Treasury departments.

In 1989, by contrast, Bush blithely picked most of his top Cabinet secretaries and appointees from a clique of personal political supporters.

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Ex-senator Tower, for one, was a fellow Texan who had supported Bush against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination in 1980, and who was willing to campaign literally anywhere for Bush in 1988.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III, in turn, was Bush’s campaign chairman in both 1980 and 1988.

Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, back in 1987, was the chairman of the early Bush campaign’s executive committee.

Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher, Bush’s 1988 national finance chairman, has handled his fellow Texan’s fund raising for a decade.

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White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu served as Bush’s New Hampshire state chairman and Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner as his state chairman in Illinois. Fortunately, Bush’s new defense choice, Wyoming Congressman Dick Cheney doesn’t raise any similar problems. But I can’t think of another late 20th-Century Cabinet--not even Richard M. Nixon’s in 1969--that so closely parallels the senior hierarchy of the previous presidential campaign.

The other provocative circumstance is that Tower represents just the tip of the iceberg in Administration conflicts of interest. The new President’s condemnations of middle-class hustler ethics surrounding Reagan officials like Edwin Meese III and Michael K. Deaver have an element of both inadequacy and class condescension. Top-level Bush appointees are so much richer--multimillionaires Baker, Brady and Mosbacher together have a combined net worth of about $250 million--that they have an entirely different sort of conflict-of-interest problem, which several have acknowledged and dealt with only under protest.

Baker’s situation, in fact, may be the Administration’s most egregious. We know now that during 1987-88, while Baker was Treasury secretary, he owned several million dollars worth of stock in New York’s Chemical Bank--but nonetheless went right ahead pursuing Latin American debt-related policies, conspicuously in Chemical’s interest.

Former Reagan White House Communications Director Patrick J. Buchanan has suggested that Meese would have gone to jail for what Baker has done, and the New Republic has pointed out that while Baker was busy favoring the interests of banks like Chemical, his own stock holdings appreciated nicely. Equity demands that if Tower was rejected by Congress, Baker should at least be grilled by Congress.

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Tower’s situation, by contrast, had he been confirmed, would have meant his standing aside or recusing himself from most major Pentagon decisions because of his 1986-88 service--when he earned more than $700,000--as a defense-industry consultant to LTV Corp., Martin Marietta Corp., Rockwell International Corp., Textron Inc. and British Aerospace. This was what the public found most objectionable about Tower’s nomination, yet other Bush Cabinet officers have at least related situations.

Atty. Gen. Richard L. Thornburgh is having to recuse himself from decisions involving companies like AT&T;, H.J. Heinz, Westinghouse and others because of the holdings in his stock portfolio. Mosbacher has to recuse himself in matters involving energy and cosmetics--he bought a skin-care company for his wife. U.S. Trade Representative Carla Anderson Hills, as an ex-director of six major corporations and a former lobbyist for South Korean, Canadian and Japanese interests, will have to stand aside on matters regarding a number of industries and countries. Bush’s ethics adviser, C. Boyden Gray, remained on the payroll of his family’s $500-million company even while he was on Bush’s staff. Conflicts like this are omnipresent in the new Administration, but Democrats have done little to document or even pursue an obvious issue.

It says little for the quality and depth of the Democrats’ fight against Tower that they kept emphasizing the hapless Texan’s own tippling and personal behavior while avoiding serious discussions of Tower’s conflicts of interest--or the larger problems in the Bush Administration as a whole. Nor did they choose to focus on Bush’s emerging judgment shortfall in choosing inadequate aides, advisers and vice presidents. Yet these are important issues--and should be. Now that we’ve seen Tower come undone, and seen questions grow about other top aides, Bush’s selection of Dan Quayle for vice president is looking less like a fluke and more like a harbinger of recurrent ineptitude.

But whatever Bush’s problems, he does have one break: the acumen of the Democratic opposition. Now it is the public that has bipartisan cause for complaint.

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