NEIL BUSH, the president's son, is wrong when he claims that his record as director of a failed Denver S&L is blameless. By his own account, he voted to approve loans to a business partner -- an example of the financial incest that was central to the collapse of many savings and loan institutions. But he is right when he complains that the great attention given his case is owed to his relationship to the president rather than to the magnitude of any offenses of his own.
The younger Mr. Bush has the misfortune to have become a target in the rising warfare between Democrats and Republicans over who's to blame for the inordinately costly S&L scandals. (Correct answer: Both are to blame, and deeply.) It's fair to say that, except for his family connection, Neil Bush would hardly be a major figure in this wrathful sorting out of the S&L industry's wreckage.
The people who committed the most serious offenses have been or -- let's hope -- will be convicted of crimes. In the past 20 months the Justice Department has charged 306 defendants in S&L cases and has secured convictions of more than 200. Neil Bush has not been charged with any crime, and there has been no suggestion so far that he will be.
One regulatory agency, the Office of Thrift Supervision, has filed a civil complaint against him and ordered him to appear at a public hearing in September to explain those loans to his partner. Another agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is considering a suit against him and others to recover some of the enormous losses of the failed S&L. There are probably several thousand people who are, to one degree or another, in the same category as Neil Bush -- not at the highest level of culpability, not charged with criminal violations, but subject to regulatory sanctions and perhaps lawsuits.
Presidents' relatives have always been fair game in partisan politics. In each case the key question is whether they were exploiting their connection for their own profit. In the Bush case, there is some evidence that the regulators delayed closing the S&L, Silverado, until after the 1988 election to keep it out of the campaign. But otherwise there's nothing visible to indicate that Mr. Bush's line to the White House did him much good. The fundamental reason for the S&L disaster was not the misdoings of individual S&L directors in Denver, but the willingness among high officials in Washington to let those practices continue and, at all costs, to keep the game going.