Journal Circle Jerk
Bush’s Wall Street Bull
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, February 2, 2007
President Bush was scampering discrepant all over Wall Street on Wednesday. Speaking to business executives at Federal Hall (the federal government’s Garden of Eden back in 1789) he moaned about the Sarbanes-Oxley law, which he signed in 2002 in answer to a burst of corporate accounting scandals that came to light in 2001. In his words, “we don’t need to change the law; we need to change the way the law is implemented.” That little phrase sums up Bush’s affection for dicta. It doesn’t matter what the law is, what it says, what its intention happens to be. What matters is what he does with it. That’s why he has appended more than 800 “signing statements” to bills passed by Congress specifying which parts he will not follow as Congress intends them, but only as he interprets them. That’s why he declared in an executive order in December that, as the Times summarized it, each of the federal government’s agencies “must have a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee, to supervise the development of rules and documents providing guidance to regulated industries. The White House will thus have a gatekeeper in each agency to analyze the costs and the benefits of new rules and to make sure the agencies carry out the president’s priorities.” And that’s why he told business “leaders” on Wall Street not to worry about Sarbanes-Oxley: he’d have his Treasury Secretary and the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission draw up rules “interpreting” the law business’ way. So we’ll soon backdate to pre-2002 standards of scratch-my-back accounting and corporate gamesmanship for shareholders’ sake while the business of America will resume being, first and last, business. (“America was not founded to make money,” Woodrow Wilson told his own audience of businessmen, that one in St. Louis in 1919; “it was founded to lead the world on the way to liberty.” Bush, his Wilsonian streak of leading the world to liberty having proven so fallible, is reverting to the Coolidge version of American purpose: Business.)
One of his day’s big contradictions was this: he wants Sarbanes-Oxley relaxed because he claims, in chorus with business leaders, that it hampers business’ competitiveness. Yet he had just finished boasting about the endlessly good times and strong footing he’d put the economy on since 2001, boasting about the GDP clocking in above 3 percent again, boasting about low unemployment and limited inflation. Could it be that accountability actually makes businesses stronger? To mask his plundering of Sarbanes-Oxley, he threw out what he knew would be grabbed by the media for the next day’s headlines: a mild request to corporations to better handle executive compensation: “Government should not decide the compensation for America’s corporate executives,” he said (of course not Mr. President; government should just ensure that executive compensation is, beyond a certain meager point, tax-free), “but salaries and bonuses of CEOs should be based on their success at improving their companies and bringing value to their shareholders.” Isn’t that what every CEO making $25 million a year claims to be doing, including the king of them all, the former head of Home Depot, Bob Nardelli, now departed on the chimes and ka-chings of a $215 million severance package? One good thing: Bush’s salary is capped, for now, at $400,000, although even as we speak his future dividends must be gathering interest in an escrow to be named later (if it wasn’t so named before January 20, 2001).
Another big contradiction was his recognition, in the same speech to business leaders, “that income inequality is real.” He blamed it on education. But why would those inequalities have been so powerfully exacerbated in the last six years, at the very time when his education and tax reforms were, supposedly, designed to create a fairer, more opportunity friendly nation? And what have those CEO salaries got to do with inequality? Nothing. (Technically they don’t; but it isn’t the CEOs’ salaries individually that matter. It’s the ripple effect the inflation of executive and managerial salaries have as a whole: those at and near the top bask in the riches, the rest gape at the growing divide, their pay only barely affected or not at all.)
From there, Bush went to the Wall Street Journal for a chat with its editorial board. He left his contradictions at the door. It was time for full-blown howlers, helped along by Journal editors. “Mr. Bush’s biggest theme,” they wrote in their lead editorial the following day, “was pushing back against what he feared might be a national lurch away from engagement with the world.” Engagement with the world? Bush, whose foreign-policy approach one of his administration’s leading voices once characterized as “Look, fucker, you do what we want.”? Wait: Bush’s words were worse: “How do you work with others to see that we don’t become isolationists?”
The more relevant question is how do you counter such an astounding, and apparently sincere, disconnect between the president’s policies (and their consequence) and what he himself still believes, and what the leading voice of conservative journalism enables without the slightest hint of irony or skepticism? The answer is: You don’t. You can’t, anymore than it would be effective to reason with a Calvinist’s convictions about eternal damnation or Baptist’s conviction about the evils of lesbianism (not including the said Baptist’s private and single-handed enjoyment of said lesbianism, downloaded on the basement computer to relax after Wednesday services). This is what’s meant by the faith-based presidency. Reality doesn’t matter. The law doesn’t matter. Congress doesn’t matter. Not even what the president does matters. Only what the president says, for public consumption, is what matters.
The Journal editorial gets worse, too, as it grovels along: “The President was also notably accommodative in conceding Congress’s power of the purse to influence war decisions, even such things as where troops can be deployed. ‘I think they have the authority to defund, use their funding power,’ he said, even to influence ‘total deployments in Iraq.’ The danger here is that Congress will take him up on this concession and start to micromanage the war.” Notice the Journal editors’ nifty trick: first, they entirely erase the Constitutional provision requiring war-making powers to be exclusively in Congress’ hands, leaving it, oddly, to Bush to remind the editors that yes, Congress has every right to stop funding. It’s in the Constitution. To get around that inconvenient truth, the editorial brandishes the canard of “micromanaging” the war, which Congress, of course isn’t doing, although the president—by circumventing his generals in good Johnson fashion—is. And all along the Journal calls Bush’s stance a concession. At Federal Hall, it was Bush flouting the law to peddle his dicta. In the Journal’s board room, it’s the Journal editors showing, as they do almost daily, their authoritarian grays.
The editorial began with lavish flattery, as if the Journal’s editors were every one of them a courtesan at Louis XIV’s court (let’s make that Louis XVI, given the merchandise): “If Mr. Bush is beaten down by the polls and his party’s loss of Congress, he isn’t showing it.” Maybe the editors should have a look at this. But the Journal’s editorial page has never been big on fact, even less on reality. It’s Fox News in Oxford shoes and the occasional smell of Merlot. So to close out the editorial the editors write this: “As he weaves between comments both on and off the record, Mr. Bush betrays little doubt about the direction of his policies, regardless of the politics.” Which recalls something Bush told Bob Woodward in “Bush at War” four years ago: “I know it’s hard for you to believe, but I have not doubted what we’re doing…. I have not doubted.... There is no doubt in my mind we’re doing the right thing. Not one doubt.” To have not a single doubt is not in and of itself a virtue, especially when, four years and various catastrophes later, the tune is unchanged. The Journal’s closing paragraph then lovingly quotes the decider: “Getting hammered is what happens when you take tough, principled positions.”
It’s also what happens when you take dumb, reckless positions, refuse to budge, and confuse principle with pigheadedness.