Sunday, January 27, 2002

“One More Pig at the Trough”

I called in my report on the meeting of the Republican National Committee last night after I got back to the motel.

“Where’ve you been, Ace?” demanded Bob. “We’ve been holding the presses for your story.”

“They ran a little over schedule, Chief. I got back as quick as I could.”

“Okay, okay. Just give me the main details. Who did they elect as Chairman?”

“Well, that’s one of the funny things, Chief. They elected Mark Racicot. I thought that they wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole after news broke that he took a $50,000 bribe from Enron.”

Bob exploded. “Damn it, Ace!” he yelled, “That was NOT a bribe! It was a $50,000 consultant’s fee! Get your facts straight!”

“What exactly IS a bribe, Chief?” I asked. “I can’t seem to grasp the distinction.”

“A bribe is illegal, you dunce. A consultant’s fee is completely legitimate.”

“And the two million dollars Lay and Enron gave Bush?”

“Campaign contributions. Never to be construed as bribes.”

“Dick Cheney’s meetings with Kenneth Lay to find out what Lay wanted in the administration’s energy bill? And letting Lay handpick the head of the SEC, which is supposed to be regulating his company?”

“Just service to a constituent. Nothing to do with campaign contributions.”

“I think I’m getting it now, Chief. And the job Wendy Gramm got on Enron’s board after the government commission she headed gave Enron a special break that earned Enron millions and millions?”

“They were just tapping her expertise. Perfectly legitimate.”

“Larry Lindsey’s consulting fee?”

“Same as Racicot’s. Why even ask?”

“So as far as the Republican National Committee is concerned ….?”

“You’ve got it. Racicot’s not tainted. He was just one more pig at the trough.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Monday, January 21, 2002

“Friends of Enron”

“Hello, Senator Gramm? This is Mavis Beanfield calling. I have good news for you, sir!”

“I’m surely in need of some good news, ma’am. How can I help you?”

“Oh, I’m not looking for help, Senator. In fact, I’m calling to thank you for help you’ve already given, you and your lovely wife.”

“What kind of help was that, Ms. …Brownfield, was it?”

“Beanfield, Senator. I’m with the Friends of Enron Foundation, and we’re just so pleased with all the help you and Mrs. Gramm have given us over the years. We’re having our Annual Awards Dinner next month, and I’m pleased to report that you and your wife were co-winners of this year’s “Friends of Enron Award,” for your long history of outstanding assistance to the corporation.”

“Uhm, look Ms. Beanpole, ….”

“Beanfield, Senator. We already have the plaques prepared. Let me read the inscription to you; I know you’ll be thrilled! ‘To Senator Phil Gramm and Wendy Gramm, For Their Dedicated Efforts On Behalf Of Enron. Senator Gramm provided leadership in exempting Enron’s energy derivatives business from regulation under the act governing commodities trading, thus bringing the corporation a windfall of over $250,000,000. Not to be outdone, Mrs. Gramm, during her term as chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, allowed for an exemption in the trading of energy derivatives. After resigning from the Commission, she assumed a seat on Enron’s Board of Directors.”

“That’s very flattering, Ms. Brownfield ….”

“Just call me Mavis, Senator. Please.”

“…but I’m afraid my schedule is full on that date.”

“But I haven’t mentioned a date yet, Senator!”

“Yes, well, whatever. Listen, I just can’t accept the award when there are others so much more deserving. Dick Cheney, for instance. Jim Baker. Karl Rove. Larry Lindsey. Heck, even the President himself. Those guys have all carried the water for you folks.”

[Embarrassed pause] “I didn’t want to have to get into this, Senator, but we’ve already approached all of the people you mentioned. We thought they were all deserving as well. But can you imagine this, their schedules were all full too. I just don’t understand it; we never had this problem in previous years. [Gives a little laugh] Heck, last year people were almost fighting to get the award!”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Saturday, January 19, 2002

“What Recession?”

At the potluck dinner at church last night, I noticed that Arnie Landers was looking pretty peaked. It was the first time I’d seen him in weeks.

“What’s up, Arnie?” I said.

“Boy, my job is running me ragged,” he said. “Sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, and I still can’t keep up.”

I was surprised. “I wouldn’t think an office supply firm would be booming in the middle of a recession,” I said. “I thought businesses were cutting employees, suffering from sagging sales, and trimming overhead.”

“Oh, in general, our sales are lousy,” he said tiredly. “It’s specialty sales that are off the chart.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “What kind of specialty sales?”

“Paper shredders,” he said. “Industrial-strength paper shredders. We can’t keep them in stock. In fact, some of our models are on back order. The manufacturers say they’ve kicked up production, but they can’t keep up with the demand.”

“Who’s buying all the paper shredders?” I wondered.

“We got a huge initial order from Enron,” he said. “I know they’re the seventh largest corporation in the country, but you wouldn’t think they’d need so many paper shredders all at one time. And then their accounting firm called in a rush order on fifty of the things.”

“Is that it?” I asked. “Sounds as if things ought to be getting back to normal.”

“Humph!” he snorted. “That was just the beginning. It’s all government office orders now, and we’re getting more every day.”

“What kind of government offices?”

“We got a huge early order from Dick Cheney’s secretary; we had to ship those air express. Phil Gramm and his wife ordered ten. James Baker and Karl Rove got a half dozen apiece. The White House ordered a dozen. Hell, half the administration has called in the past two weeks, and they all want them ASAP. I don’t know why there’s such a demand, but this is turning into the biggest quarter we’ve ever had. We’ve hired four full time people just this month.”

“Haven’t you been following the news?” I asked.

“When business is this good,” he said, “who has time to read a paper or watch TV?”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

“Whose Ox Is Being Gored?”

It’s frustrating, as I get older, to find myself having trouble coming up with the names of people I know perfectly well. My friend Melvin, who’s a few years my senior, seems to be going through the same kind of thing.

We were sitting in “Greg’s Greasy Spoon,” having some scrambled tofu and a cup of herbal tea, when I chanced to ask him what he thought about the latest Washington scandal. He turned red, puffed up, and sputtered, “It’s a damned outrage!”

Other diners glanced our way. “Could you hold it down a little bit, Melvin?” I said. “I don’t want us to get tossed out of here again.”

“That’s the trouble with this country!” he yelled a little louder. “Everybody’s afraid to speak his mind and call a spade a spade. They’re a bunch of damned crooks! They’ve defrauded investors, robbed their own employees, written national energy policy for their own benefit, and corrupted Congress. Our President has been bought and sold like a pound of baloney! He ought to be impeached, along with half his cabinet! Centralizing the investigation in the Justice Department is just a way of controlling the cover-up. We need an independent prosecutor to go after those so-and-so’s and nail their skins to the side of a barn!”

I looked around nervously. Greg was easing down the counter in our direction. “Gee, Melvin,” I said, “I’m sort of surprised. You’ve been such a strong Bush supporter.”

He glanced up at me, a look of confusion clouding his eyes. “Bush?” he said. “I don’t know how that happened. I was thinking Clinton was still President. What was I saying?”

“We were talking about the Enron scandal,” I reminded him.

“Scandal?” he scoffed. “There’s no scandal. It’s all a creation of the liberal media, trying to undermine the greatest wartime leader since Abraham Lincoln. This thing doesn’t begin to compare with Whitewater.”

“Well, I don’t know, Melvin,” I said dubiously. “You remember how the Rush Limbaughs and William Safires and Trent Lotts and Phil Gramms hammered Clinton and his wife for eight years with accusations and endless stories and fourteen million dollars worth of independent prosecutors, all over a $100,000 investment they once made.”

“And well they should have,” he said belligerently.

“But this is about looting a company of sixty billion dollars, Melvin!” I objected. “From a company that bankrolled the Bush family’s political careers since W’s father was running for office! That’s been the big money behind George W’s campaign for governor AND President! There’s no suspicion of a cover-up; Enron’s auditing firm has already admitted shredding thousands of documents the day after investigators asked for records. James Baker, the guy who was all over the news maneuvering the Florida recount—he was with Enron. Karl Rove, the other guy who was masterminding Bush’s election, owned a quarter of a million dollars worth of Enron stock. Bob Mosbacher, the Commerce Secretary, was with Enron. Bush’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, was an Enron consultant. The list goes on and on. And it’s not a bunch of nobodies. These are Bush’s main handlers, the guys who tell him what to do and where to go and what to say.”

He looked at me shrewdly. “You know as well as I do,” he said, “that this is all just a big smear campaign orchestrated by Hilary Clinton.”

“That’s enough, you two,” said Greg at my elbow. “You’re outa here again.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Monday, January 14, 2002

“West Virginia Fruits”

My friend Melvin Anglekey follows the fortunes of energy corporations the way most men follow baseball teams, and monitors oil and gas production like a fan tracking batting averages. So who better to help me understand the implications of the unfolding Enron scandal? I gave him a call.

“Are all these revelations giving you second thoughts on the wisdom of having Enron dictate energy and economic policy for the United States?” I began.

He snorted. “Certainly not. This has all been blown out of proportion. We need to keep things in perspective, and remember the contributions energy corporations have always made to our society. Unfortunately, the American public has no sense of history.”

“What aspect of history did you have in mind?” I asked.

“You’re as bad as the rest! You don’t have to look any farther than your own backyard!” he said in exasperation. Here in Wirt, Ritchie, Calhoun, and Gilmer Counties we’re sitting smackdab on top of one of the world’s first major oil discoveries.”

“And?” I said.

“Just look around you,” he directed. “Growing, vibrant communities. Healthy, prosperous citizens. Broad, beautiful highways. An elaborate infrastructure. With careful corporate stewardship, all that wealth has made a lasting impact.”

“Do you think so?” I asked.

He was warming to his topic. “It’s obvious,” he said. “But don’t just focus on our part of the state. Look at the southern coalfields. That’s the thing in its purest form. Total domination of the economy by a single industry for a century and a half, right down through the present day. They started with the largest, richest coal deposits in the world—a resource so vast that a king would turn green with envy. Look what they’ve done with it, what they’ve made of the region. They deserve every bit of credit for what it’s become.”

“Which is…?” I asked.

“Nothing less than one of the cultural and commercial centers of the entire eastern half of the United States,” he said triumphantly.

“I think I see where you’re heading with this,” I said thoughtfully. “Logan, Mingo, McDowell ….”

“Exactly,” he said. “The very names conjure up the images I’m looking for. Beautiful mountain vistas unsullied by the hand of man, maintained in all their natural glory by careful mining practices. Streams so pure and clear you can dip your hands in them and drink. Thriving towns, wonderful schools, and county governments remarkable for their honesty and forward-thinking. An industry renowned for its long, honorable history of enlightened labor practices.”

“Your point, I take it, is that Enron has just been doing on a national scale what energy corporations have always done in West Virginia,” I ventured.

“You’ve got it,” he said. “The Bible says, ‘By their fruits shall ye know them.’ Just look at their fruits in West Virginia, and pray that they can do the same thing for the rest of the country.”

“Melvin,” I said, “it appears your prayers have been answered.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Tuesday, January 01, 2002

“Talking Freedom”

I ran into my friend Bill Wentz down at the auto parts store yesterday. When I said “Hello,” he just kept staring straight ahead with a glazed look in his eyes. After waiting an uncomfortable minute for him to respond, I snapped my fingers in front of his face. He gave a start. “Oh, hi,” he said. “Sorry. Didn’t see you there.”

“You sure didn’t,” I laughed. “What were you seeing?”

He reddened. “It’s something that happened to me yesterday afternoon in Parkersburg,” he said. “I’m still in a daze.”

“‘You look it,” I said. “What happened?”

He hesitated. “It started with me making an assumption,” he said. “It was all downhill from there.”

“What kind of assumption?”

“Well, I was looking for a thermocouple for my furnace, and running around to different heating and air conditioning shops. I went into this little one-man operation, and there was a sign in big letters on the wall behind the counter. It was that quotation from Benjamin Franklin about liberty and security, warning that focusing on security can cost you your liberty. It’s always been one of my favorites. So I gave the guy at the counter a thumbs-up: ‘Those words ring as true now as they did two hundred years ago,’ I said.”

“‘Amen to that,’ he said. ‘Maybe more true, considering what we’re going through.’”

“A kindred spirit, I thought. It was good to find somebody else who was passionate about freedom. ‘The Bill of Rights is the heart of our democracy,’ I said. ‘It’s scary how people are willing to see those rights ripped away with nary a peep.’”

“‘Well I’m sure not giving up without a struggle,’ he said. ‘And I’ve got plenty of friends who feel the same way.’”

“‘Have you gotten anything organized?’ I asked.”

“‘Damned straight,’ he said. ‘Letters to the editor, phone calls to Congress, call-ins to radio talk shows, bumper stickers, the works.’”

“‘Wow! That’s impressive!’ I said. ‘A few of us are trying to get something organized in Calhoun County. Maybe somebody from your group can come and help us get started.’”

“‘We’d be glad to come,’ he said. ‘Any friend of liberty’s a friend of mine.’”

“‘How about some evening next week?’ I suggested.”

“‘Sounds good to me,’ he said. ‘I’ll bring some pamphlets and literature. Maybe we can get somebody from the NRA to come too.’”

“‘The NRA?’ I said.”

“‘Sure,’ he said. ‘The NRA. They’ll bring copies of the Constitution with the Second Amendment in red letters. The red-letter edition. They’ll give you all kinds of material and support.’”

“‘I didn’t know they cared about due process protection, habeas corpus, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, things like that,’ I ventured doubtfully.”

“‘Due process? Habeas corpus? What the hell are you talking about?’”

“‘You know. Due process. Where the legal system has to give everybody the opportunity to know the charges against them, have effective counsel of their own choosing, the right to cross-examine witnesses, the right to appeal. All those basic protections that keep the government from grabbing anybody they want, tossing them in the clink, and throwing away the key.’”

“‘Listen,’ he reassured me, “as long as John Ashcroft is Attorney General, you don’t have to worry about the Constitution. He’s the best friend the Second Amendment ever had.’”

“‘John Ashcroft!’ I said incredulously. ‘The man is frightening! When it comes to the Bill of Rights, he’s deaf and dumb! If the country follows the route he charts, America will become a police state!’”

“‘You can’t be serious,’ he said. ‘When people wanted records of gun purchases by the airplane hijackers, he turned ‘em down flat. No way he was going to trample on their Second Amendment rights.’”

“‘The Bill of Rights has ten amendments! TEN!’ I screamed. ‘You can’t even count past TWO, and you skip ONE!’”

“That got him hot. ‘I can’t say as I like your attitude,’ he said. ‘People like you are almost as big a threat as the terrorists. You know what Ashcroft said: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”’”

“So basically he implied that you were pro-terrorist because you supported the Bill of Rights,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s what it comes down to. The scary part is that when he told me that I was aiding terrorists, and that a well-armed citizenry is the backbone of our freedom, not our system of guaranteed legal protections, I could have shot him if I’d had a gun.’’

“What’s your point?” I said.

“He wasn’t apathetic. He cared about freedom in his own way. We started out using the same language, thinking we were talking about the same thing. I used to worry about guys like him. Now I worry about me too.”

© Tony Russell, 2002