Whatever happens in the coming investigation, Thursday, January 10 will be remembered as the day the Enron issue exploded in Washington. Beyond the headline stories — the calls from Enron chief Kenneth Lay to two Cabinet secretaries, the recusal of Attorney General John Ashcroft from the investigation, and the admission by accounting firm Arthur Andersen that it destroyed a “significant” number of documents in the case — Thursday will also go down as the day two new words entered the debate: special prosecutor.
Less than three years after the independent-counsel law was allowed to expire — unmourned by both political parties — some Democrats are raising the idea that the Bush Justice Department is not capable of investigating Enron. “I think the basic question is: Can this administration investigate its single largest contributor?” former Clinton pollster Mark Penn asked on CNN Thursday night. “Can [people] trust the administration to get the right answers? And would they trust an administration-sponsored investigation? I don’t think so.”
It’s an idea the White House quickly dismissed. “The president has full faith and confidence in the professional prosecutors at the Department of Justice and the Attorney General to do what is right in pursuing this investigation,” spokesman Ari Fleischer said at Thursday’s Enron-dominated briefing. (Fleischer added that the investigation “must be pursued, to get to the bottom of all of the allegations of criminal wrongdoing by Enron.”)
But the special-prosecutor talk is unlikely to go away, because it allows Democrats to press their claim that Enron has become the Bush administration’s Whitewater. Long discussed by Democratic activists, the claim is now receiving lots of attention in the press. “Widening Probe Of Texas-Based Enron Could Dog Bush As Whitewater Plagued Clinton,” read one Associated Press headline on Thursday. “People are already saying this may be the scandal. Some are saying the Whitewater of the Bush administration,” CNN’s Judy Woodruff said the same day.
But so far, beyond the strong desire of some Clinton loyalists to suggest equivalencies between the Clinton and Bush administrations, there is scant evidence that Enron equals Whitewater. Yes, they each set off a quickly forming critical mass of Washington media interest, but the same could be said of all sorts of news stories. In contrast to Enron, interest in Whitewater was ignited by events deep inside the White House; the story mushroomed at the end of 1993 and beginning of 1994 after revelations that Clinton aides removed documents from the office of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster on the night of his suicide. That news in turn revived long-dormant press interest in the Whitewater real-estate investment, in which Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared to have received special treatment from their two business partners, both later convicted of felonies. Later, the story involved the investigation of whether the president lied about that special treatment under oath.
None of that seems to be the case in Enron. Yes, there are reports of missing documents, but the Whitewater comparison would become much more apt if those documents were later discovered in the White House residence. So far, the only real similarity to past Clinton scandals is the almost eerie reappearance of Robert Bennett, the former Clinton lawyer who is now representing Enron.
That’s not to say there is nothing there. A major corporation that was one of the president’s top supporters is under criminal investigation in a case that appears to involve massive fraud and thousands of victimized investors. The White House — and Republicans in Congress — would be crazy to resist an exhaustive investigation, both by the Justice Department and by Capitol Hill committees. And in the course of those investigations, new evidence might come to light that would make the story much more serious for the White House than it appears now.
But so far, the real similarity to Whitewater is not one of substance but one of political utility. Like Whitewater, Enron is a weapon which the president’s opponents are eager to use to do him political damage. “The reason this is so potentially devastating to Bush is that it brings to life in very real terms the notion that when push comes to shove, he’s for the big business special interests and not for the little guy,” former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart told the Associated Press Thursday.
There’s some truth to that; certainly Democrats have used the “tool of big business” argument against Bush with some effectiveness in the past. Now, Enron gives them more rhetorical ammunition. But that’s not the same as a scandal involving wrongdoing on the part of the president or the people in his administration. Even Joe Lockhart knows that.