A Declaration of War

Scripps-Howard News Service 2.06.02
Balint Vazsonyi

On February 4, 2002, a day that will live in infamy, Kenneth L. Lay (former chairman and CEO of Enron) cancelled his appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee. The event was obviously considered by some the equivalent of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, Hitler's invasion of Poland, or the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

In response, the Democratic Party of the United States declared war on the government of the United States.

A minutely choreographed press conference by senators representing the relevant committees was chosen as format. With regard to content, most speakers were careful to focus on the obvious wrongs of the Enron collapse, and were equally careful to postpone judgment until such time that the facts of the full story become available.

But spearheading the event was Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina. Before his parting shot, "We have an Enron government," he described the Bush administration as "cash and carry" several times. Calling out names and dollar amounts, he tarred and feathered just about every member of the Executive Branch with no ifs, ands or buts. Of course, he did all that in his accustomed manner, coming across as a bad-tempered, senile old man, blurting out incoherent calumny with no facts cited to support it.

That is, unless calling every Republican in sight an "Enron advisor" passes for fact.

I have never had the honor of meeting Senator Hollings, thus it is impossible for me to know whether his is a well-studied act affording him "plausible deniability," or whether he really is what he appears to be. In any event, his diatribes were just loose enough for others to issue disclaimers if, as was the case with Majority Leader Senator Daschle's tax speech, the scheme misfires.

One can understand the immense frustration of the Democratic Party. President Bush's stratospheric approval numbers are one thing. But television anchorpersons and Hollywood celebrities finding themselves forced into publicly supporting America's cause must be humiliating to a degree that borders on the intolerable.

To be sure, no amount of scrutiny is too much scrutiny for Enron's directors and auditors. And if it is found that a member, or members of the Bush administration are guilty of anything, they must meet up with the full force of the law, like anyone else.

But listening to speeches by today's Democratic senators about ethics in government was like the Germans lecturing us about human rights last week. While Republican Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself because of a $50,000 contribution from Enron, Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut - having received many times more - wouldn't dream of any such thing.

The ultimate victims might well be the thousands of decent, ethical, patriotic Democrats whose voices are drowned out by the party hacks. And make no mistake about where the hacks stand: while only a few joined in the declaration of war, they all lined up behind their lead man - Senator Hollings.

George W. Bush went a long way to show that the national interest trumps party politics. He even risked alienating his core supporters by making common cause with Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, an open advocate of European socialist programs. President Bush obviously hoped to re-introduce an "America First" approach, and the signs are that the people who live here like what they see.

It will be fascinating to observe what kind of conclusion the president will draw from the response to his outstretched hand. If true to form, he will carry on regardless.

But the health of our political structure rests on two strong parties, holding divergent views on matters of public policy. It is high time for the Democratic Party to take stock. For decades now, their electoral strength has been predicated on masses that neither comprehend the American system of government, nor care much about it. That is short-sighted, to say the least.

As for Senator Hollings, it will be fascinating to observe whether the media holds his feet to the fire. He accused scores of people, from the president down, of being paid lackeys of Enron. If a shred of honor is left in "the world's greatest deliberative body," he will either have to make good on those accusations or be forced to resign in disgrace.