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Mary McGrory

Changing the Subject

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, July 7, 2002; Page B07

George W. Bush is well on his way in his program of worldwide regime-change. Palestine is on notice that it must -- in "a free and fair election," mind you -- oust Yasser Arafat or else. And now we are told, by the New York Times, that plans for an invasion of Iraq are well advanced. We must hope that someone in the inner circle is warning the president that regime-changing is harder than subject-changing -- something at which he is exceptionally adept.

The president is extremely touchy about stories that in any way contradict his contention that he had no warning before Sept. 11. Several FBI agents stepped forward to suggest otherwise: Kenneth Williams in Phoenix, followed closely by Coleen Rowley of Minneapolis. Rowley gave a Senate committee a bill of particulars against agency higher-ups who ignored her office's findings on Zacarias Moussaoui.

_____More McGrory_____
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But Rowley was buried alive the very next day as the White House unfurled a homeland security reorganization that would cost $38 billion and involve huge numbers of federal employees -- although oddly enough, neither the FBI nor the CIA. It was something that Bush had resisted for months, and the scope of it set Washington ababble to the exclusion of any consideration of Rowley and all that she said.

The most spectacular instance of subject change followed. On June 20, the press published the story of a National Security Agency intercept that featured a warning as cryptic as the utterance of the Delphic oracle on a bad day: "The match is about to begin." Its publication sent the vice president into orbit. He issued a thunderous blast on a favorite subject, leaky members of Congress, who, he was sure, had blabbed. The Senate and House intelligence committees had a joint fit of self-abasement. "Investigate us," they implored the FBI, which, of course, they are supposed to be investigating.

The episode tells you everything you need to know about why Bush so adamantly prefers such committees to the special Sept. 11 inquiry suggested by sophisticates.

But Bush faces a subject that could be the challenge of his life in the business scandals that have crept onto the radar screens of the voters, who once upon a time did not consider corporate greed as any of their business except as something to grumble about around the kitchen table.

These new "malefactors of great wealth" are not just distant figures hurrying toward their private jets bound for some purchased paradise; no, in many cases they have been entrusted with the pension funds of millions of Americans who are faced with the prospect of a penurious old age. In a generally doting public, according to a Pew Research Center poll, almost 40 percent disapprove of the way Bush is handling the greed problem.

Those corporate rogues who cook their books, bleed their companies, overreport their earnings and speak with forked tongues to investing clients are paid astronomical salaries, which never seem to be enough. They are also the kind of people Bush has hung out with all his life. They are the people who feel that government agencies such as the Federal Election Commission should subvert in any way they can legislation such as McCain-Feingold -- a bill Bush signed into law in stealth lest anyone imagine he approved of it.

Like them, Bush, a former friend of Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, thinks that capitalism should be unfettered, that industrial regulations should be written by industrialists. Bush, while governor of Texas, proposed a program of voluntary cleanups by polluters, expressing a belief in their good intentions that is not universally shared.

They are the people who think that Christ's declaration that man does not live by bread alone is a misprint. It is probably too much to hope that Democrats who gratefully accepted large campaign purses from the graspers will refrain from self-righteousness.

Bush has been lecturing the greedy and has booked a Wall Street speech. Meanwhile, The Post's Dana Milbank has written a story that may show the high-fliers that preacher Bush is still one of them, just as impatient and high-handed as they themselves were with government regulation. In 1991 Bush filed a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission on a stock trade some 34 weeks late. His alibis were strikingly uninventive, variations on the "dog ate my homework" theme. First he blamed the SEC for losing his disclosure documents. Subsequently he blamed his company's lawyer. During an SEC probe, Bush was represented by a lawyer whom he has since appointed ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Bush told us the other day that he "love[s] peace." But not with Iraq. In the face of reservations from the Joint Chiefs he is planning a major military adventure. It still might be a more congenial subject than the crimes of his boardroom pals.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company