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Mary McGrory

The Kept Crusader

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, May 9, 2002; Page A31

Everyone knows pretty much how to "refine" a crusader. You insist, when he comes calling, that he remove his hobnailed boots and those parts of his armor likely to scratch the furniture and that he hang his battle ax in the gentlemen's cloakroom.

But refining a Crusader that is a weapon is different. It seems easier to kill this 40-ton contraption. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had said on Tuesday that his decision about what to do about the weapon was being "refined," said at a press conference yesterday that the crusader was dead. It would suffer the fate of a stolen car -- be stripped for parts for other, more promising war gadgets the Pentagon is creating.

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Washington's wraparound presentation of serial crucifixions and resurrections was thrown off track this week when Rumsfeld, the smiling face of the Afghanistan war, held a coffee for reporters. He was expected to announce that Army Secretary Thomas White was not long for this world. Tuesday's edition of USA Today had led with his career obituary: "Ouster expected over clash with Rumsfeld."

It was a majority opinion. Everyone had heard Torie Clarke, Rumsfeld's stylish flack, and her chilling response to a press question about the secretary's confidence in White since their differences over the Crusader had surfaced.

Of her boss she would only say, "He has full confidence that they will get to the bottom of this . . . of any inappropriate behavior."

Washington had every reason to expect that White had been handed the ace of spades. The rap against him constituted nothing the White House couldn't handle. He was the highest-ranking Enron executive to join the administration, which was going to restore dignity and integrity to Washington. It didn't bother George Bush that White lagged in turning in his Enron stock or that he fudged the number of telephone calls he made to Enron after the fall, or that he took frequent trips to his far-flung properties at taxpayers' expense. That's wholesome, honest greed in Bushland.

Not even the explosive news that Enron did, after all, help foment California's electricity crisis in the winter of 2000 seemed to make any difference. Gov. Gray Davis, who was pummeled to a pulp for a shortage that left the Golden State cowering in fear of rolling blackouts, kept saying Enron had a blighting hand in the fuse box but couldn't prove it. He is having a moment of sublime vindication -- and looking forward to a surfeit of ammunition for his fall campaign for reelection.

Enron insisted it was the governor and environmentalists who hindered the always benevolent forces of the free market. President Bush and Vice President Cheney opposed price caps until public rage set in.

Jolly teams with fanciful names like "Get Shorty" and "Fat Boy" took turns torturing Californians, creating shortages, which only Fat Boy and Get Shorty could remedy -- at exorbitant rates. Now jubilant California state officials anticipate collecting billions in damages.

Rumsfeld's press reception occurred as California was wallowing in documents that had escaped the shredder, and California's two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, were practically dancing in the aisles.

But nobody in the administration had the first word to say about Army Secretary White, who was, after all, vice chairman of the Enron Energy Services. You might think that the prospective loss of the country's largest state might have focused their minds somewhat on White's past life. If he didn't participate in the manipulation of California's central nervous system, he might know somebody who did.

The secretary of defense exhibited no curiosity about possible criminal activity. What could have been the coup de grace for White was, instead, a shot in the arm. Rumsfeld had swallowed all the Enron swagger and corner-cutting. What got his goat was White's lapse in loyalty, the one unforgivable sin in Bushland. He had heard that White had been going behind his back to crusade for the Crusader on Capitol Hill. The program had called for 480 Crusaders at a cost of $11 billion, but money is no object among lawmakers who have subcontractors in their states.

White survives apparently for the same reason that Cardinal Law does. The pope clings to Law because if you admit a mistake and bow to public pressure, who knows how it will all end? Enron is plaited into the Bush administration, beginning with the president, whose biggest individual contributor was Enron's CEO. Cheney listened to Enron more than anyone else on energy.

Get rid of the unrefinable Crusader, but keep the Army secretary. Just make sure he checks his battle ax at the door.

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