Jewish World Review July 25, 2002 / 16 Menachem-Av, 5762

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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But doesn't everybody "do it"?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Have we become so cynical that we now suspect the worst of anyone who occupies the Oval Office, but are willing to give them a pass so long as we think they're doing their job well? One could certainly draw this conclusion based on a recent New York Times/CBS News poll on President Bush's business dealings and his presidency.

A majority of those polled said they believed that President Bush is hiding something (48 percent) or lying (9 percent) about the circumstances of his sale of Harken Energy stock options when he was a director of the company more than a decade ago. But they still give him high marks as president, with 70 percent approving overall. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz described the phenomenon as Bush's being "Clintonized." If so, it's a shame.

"Remember when big majorities in the polls would say that Bill Clinton was lying about Lewinsky, had lousy ethics and couldn't be trusted. And then his approval rating would somehow top 60 percent," writes Kurtz. The same thing is going on now, says Kurtz, with the public giving President Bush a pass. "They may not like the MBA president's coziness with business, and the dumping of the Harken stock may smell funny to them. But they believe Bush is a decent man who has done a terrific job in the war on terrorism."

Liberals would love to turn George W. Bush into Bill Clinton. It's part of the "everybody does it," moral relativity defense. I'm sorry; I'm not buying it. If Bush engaged in "insider trading" when he was on the Harken board, then he doesn't deserve to be president. But I don't for one minute believe he did anything of the sort. And there has never been any evidence to suggest he did.

So what is it that "smells funny," in Kurtz's words? Bush cashed in more than $800,000 in stock options in order to become a part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team in 1990. Shortly after he cashed out his options, the company released quarterly earnings that showed big losses in the company, so the stock price predictably fell. But it didn't stay down -- it rebounded and went even higher than the price at which Bush sold his stock. Had he held onto his options a while longer, he'd have made more money.

The Securities and Exchange Committee (SEC) investigated Bush's stock sale at the time and said there was no evidence that insider information influenced his decision. And it's hard to imagine otherwise. Any corporate director knows that his or her actions in buying or selling company stock are going to be carefully scrutinized. The SEC and outside investor watchdog groups carefully monitor such activity, looking for evidence that insiders might be trying to profit unfairly. Because George W. Bush's father was in the White House at the time, he was even more likely to be targeted for careful scrutiny.

It's disheartening to believe that so many Americans have so little faith in their leaders. Sure, some executives act unethically, and hurt their investors and their employees. And some politicians are scoundrels. However, they generally get caught -- eventually.

But if we begin to believe that everybody bends the rules, or breaks them, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I think everybody around me lies, steals and cheats, I'm more likely to do it as well. That's the danger in the growing cynicism among the public.

Our system -- both political and economic -- is built on trust. When we stopping trusting one another, and especially when we stop believing those who occupy positions of trust, the system begins to fall apart. In some sense that is what's happening on Wall Street right now. It's a dangerous trend.

You'd think the American public would know by now that George W. Bush is no Bill Clinton. He doesn't need a pass on his "private" dealings with Harken Energy. Americans need to start trusting our presidents again.

Linda Chavez serves on the board of directors of ABM Industries, Inc., a publicly held company.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate