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The triumph of cronyism 


Every self-proclaimed hero, to paraphrase Emerson, becomes a bore at last. Except in the case of George W. Bush, who has slipped past boredom into something infinitely worse, whatever you call the condition when millions of voters recognize that they’ve been had.

All of a sudden, it seems, President Bush has reached that point where his heroism is revealed as pretension, his wisdom as folly, his patronage as corruption. Rarely have a mere three months been so ruinous to a political leader. Only 28 percent, according to a poll last week, think he is leading the country in the right direction.

People had already decided that not only had he misled the country into war but that his men had run it so disastrously, from appalling manpower decisions to the scrapping of human rights, that even its occasional noble objectives were mocked. But it was hard to give up on a man who had stood on the rubble and embraced a New York firefighter after 9/11.

In the first week of September, the whole house of cards collapsed when the country saw firsthand the incompetence of the government in its response to two major hurricanes and Bush’s own blasé attitude in the first days. Now he flies regularly to the coast for staged appearances to show his concern, but people now recognize them for what they are.

Katrina revealed that there are serious consequences for the country when even one small agency is subdued by cronyism. But there is a mystical force with these things. Even while Katrina’s and Rita’s winds were subsiding, the corrupt rewards and the service of special interests that have marked an entire national government were being revealed everywhere at once.

It was not just the Federal Emergency Management Agency and “Brownie,” the absurdly inept Arabian horse show manager that Bush had put in charge of it. Although the Republican Party’s right wing controlled all the levers of the government — all the agencies of the executive branch, both houses of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and every appellate court in the land — and everyone seemed to be impervious to investigation, the sheer force of the corruption forced itself out.

Jack Abramoff, the power lobbyist so close to the administration and Republican leaders in Congress, was arrested and then shortly afterward the House Republican leader, Tom DeLay, and his political aides. The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, was undergoing scrutiny by Bush’s friendly Securities and Exchange Commission for possible insider trading after selling off millions of dollars of stock in the giant family business just before the stock headed down. The noose seemed about to drop around the necks of Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, the main men of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, for outing a secret agent in retaliation for her husband’s exposing the administration’s big lie on Iraq’s secret efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. The spectacle of a Republican inquisitor going after top Republicans for criminal acts would be unprecedented were it not for the intrepid Lawrence Walsh of Iran-Contra fame.

The same week that Rove’s jeopardy became clear, David Safavian, who was in charge of government purchasing for Bush, including Katrina relief, had to quit so that when he was arrested the headlines would not say that a Bush aide was being charged with criminal conduct.

Paul Krugman, the acerbic New York Times columnist, started two games called “Find the Brownie” and “Two Degrees of Jack Abramoff,” where people were invited to identify the unqualified and incompetent cronies and special-interest lobbyists who were running government programs that were supposed to regulate their former bosses and clients. It is, indeed, endless.

They are everywhere: a lobbyist who guided utility efforts to duck and dilute clean-air rules heads the clean air division of the Environmental Protection Agency, a timber industry lobbyist heads the Forest Service, a mining lobbyist is in charge of public lands, a manufacturing lawyer runs the Superfund program, a chemical company man is second in command at the EPA, a petroleum man is at the Council on Environmental Quality.

But my favorite is Julie Myers, whom the president nominated as head of immigration and customs enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security.

That sinecure is reserved for people who tried to do in President Clinton on sex at the end of his term. You might remember Asa Hutchinson, who was among the House’s impeachment prosecutors. Now it is Myers, whom you may recall for her escapades at the federal courthouse in Little Rock as a member of Kenneth Starr’s team.

Here is her experience with immigration: They were trying to keep Susan McDougal in prison for refusing to tell a jury some dirt on Bill or Hillary Clinton, of which she said she had none. Myers blew the case so badly when they were trying to keep her in prison in spite of severe health problems that a federal judge ordered her released immediately. At McDougal’s third trial in 1999, Myers blew it by approaching an elderly widow in the hall outside the courtroom and asking her to whisper what she knew about Bill Clinton’s sex life. The widow told the court, and the jury let McDougal go free.

Even that was not enough to secure Myers a great federal job. But when she married the chief of staff for Michael Chertoff, the director of the department, she became qualified to run a division with a $4 billion budget and 20,000 employees.




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