Democratic attempts to tar the Bush administration with the Enron scandal have thus far mirrored Gertrude Stein's opinion of Oakland, Calif.: There's no there there.
That is, unless the White House gives its opponents something to aim at -- such as keeping secret the depth of its relationship with the energy giant.
So far, there's only guilt by association -- Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was a big enough booster of the Bush campaign to earn the presidential nickname "Kenny Boy." (These days, however, it's more like, "Kenny who?") But those ties to the Oval Office proved to be more gilt than gold.
Shortly after Inauguration Day, Mr. Bush abandoned a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide that would have greatly benefited Enron. And of course, when the energy giant was circling the financial drain and headed toward bankruptcy last fall, its desperate calls for help to the administration were rebuffed.
Yet, despite the lack of evidence that the administration was in cahoots with Enron on anything unseemly, the White House has for months adamantly refused requests from California Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, to release the names of those whom Vice President Cheney's energy task force had consulted last year.
Mr. Cheney says he is not legally obligated by federal law governing advisory commissions to reveal the names of outsiders who were consulted. He also argues that such contacts must remain in confidence to foster candor from participants.
Various legal experts believe Mr. Cheney may well be right on the law, and he makes a valid point about the value of confidentiality. But he is wrong on the politics. Failure to disclose the names not only invites comparisons to Hillary Rodham Clinton's infamously secretive health care task force of 1993, it also makes the administration appear to be hiding something.
Undercutting the argument is the fact that the White House already has divulged some details of those meetings and other contacts in drips and drabs over the last few weeks. Yet, at the same time it says it is not attempting to document every contact with Enron and won't respond to such requests unless accompanied by a specific allegation of potential wrongdoing. Well, which is it?
Again, none of the information so far points to any administration hanky-panky. But the clumsy way the administration has handled the situation only invites suspicion that there's something else bubbling beneath the surface. Parroting the Clinton administration modus operandi of stonewalling and releasing dollops of information like a Chinese water torture hardly inspires confidence that the whole truth is out there.
The White House believes that releasing all the names and contacts will give partisans like Mr. Waxman ample opportunity to create a Rorschach pattern of corruption. It fears having to explain away hundreds of innocuous contacts.
But resisting disclosure looms as a bigger threat because it boils the issue down into an easily digestible storyline for the media and the public to follow: President Stonewalls Investigators, Must Have Something To Hide. The story gains momentum daily as the showdown between the White House and Congress and the courts grows. Eventually the administration will release most of the stuff anyway, but only after suffering maximum political damage.
If the administration is truly innocent of doing anything wrong, it should embrace the truth and disclose everything it knows about Enron. Let Democrats try to connect the dots into a coherent narrative that holds the public's interest.
White House stonewalling only diverts attention away from where it most belongs: holding Enron accountable for its shameful business practices.
--Savannah Morning News
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