Do Unto Others . . . Oh, Never Mind

By Michael Tomasky
Sunday, February 3, 2002; Page B03

Republicans contend that the Enron collapse is not a political scandal. It is merely, they say, a business scandal.

Actually it's neither. Enron is a values scandal, and specifically a conservative values scandal. Far from being an accident, the Enron affair is the inevitable culmination of 20 years of agitation against government regulations, employee protections and other progressive policies that might have prevented, or at least softened, the blow. Ever since Ronald Reagan took office, conservatives have treated nearly all such regulations as manacles on corporate behavior, rather than as safeguards against corporate misbehavior. While it had help from some Democrats, the GOP in particular conflated its conservative philosophy of government with a conservative moral code, while creating an environment of corporate permissiveness in which an Enron was bound to happen.

Come again, you say? What does Enron have to do with values?

Enron, you see, was big on puffing up its values, and not just its stock values. The company produced posters, paperweights and kindred baubles for its employees that were larded with talk of "values." There was even an acronym for the company'sideals -- RICE, which stood for respect, integrity, communication and excellence. Former employees have been reduced to hawking these wares on eBay, in the hope that theInternet, a person-to-person system of capitalism, might treat them more kindly than the corporate version did.

So get this, from a poster being peddled on eBay recently. "Respect: We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don't belong here." Under the word integrity, the poster says: "We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, then we won't do it." Under communication comes "the obligation to communicate." In the company's annual report for 1999, these "values" were printed alongside a photo of two affluent-looking, beaming African Americans. In 1998, there were next to a photo of an Indian woman in a hard hat.

But one of the executives from the company that touted "respect" used the name of a private part of anatomy to refer to a skeptical analyst in an open conference call last April. Managers who espoused "integrity" didn't hesitate to shred possibly incriminating documents. Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay neglected his "communication" values when he urged his company's workers to keep buying stock at a time when he and the big shots were dumping it. And "excellence" has eluded the now-bankrupt firm.

The Enron affair -- and Lay's tight relationship with the Bush circle -- give Democrats an opportunity to repossess the word "values," which was expropriated by Republicans years ago. The term, at least as Washington has understoodit, has two parts. Values Part A has been about, well, sex: sexual permissiveness among left-leaning students, reproductive choice, Mike Dukakis's seeming nonchalance when confronted with ahypothetical question about his wife's being raped, Murphy Brown's out-of-wedlock baby, Ellen DeGeneres's prime-time coming-out party and a certain former White House intern. Values Part B has been the John Wayne stuff: patriotism,individualism, loyalty to the decent standards of small-town America and suspicion of the impure, cosmopolitan mores of the city.

For years, conservatives have smitten liberals repeatedly with these swords, to extraordinary effect, even though Democrats did not lack in patriotism and Republicans did not lack their own "youthful indiscretions," even well into middle age. Somehow, the karmic tote board never evened out. Liberal Democrats were blamed for bringing the country to moral ruin.

Enron changes that. "Values"can mean something else now, like integrity in business and government. It means that a president who ran on a promise of "restoring dignity" to the White House ought to tell the truth about how long he's known the CEO who has been his biggest corporate backer. It means that the vice president should recognize as a simple ethical matter that the people -- for whom, after all, he works -- have a right to know which lobbyists he met with while formulating a major policy, just as Republicans demanded similar information from Clinton's health policy panel back in 1993. It means that when former Enron employees who have lost their pensions petition the White House for the same sort of audience their bosses once regularly received, they should actually getone -- unlike the beleaguered busload of former Enron workers turned away by the White House last week.

Each of these examples suggests the White House has a political problem it doesn't quite know how to handle. Even if Bush administration members didn't have anything to do with Enron's accounting shenanigans and even if they didn't come to the firm's rescue, George W. Bush is linked to Kenneth Lay as surely as Bill Clinton occupied the same cultural orbit as Barbra Streisand (who, by the way, has generated many jobs over the years and has never, according to her publicist, laid off an employee).

The scandal of Enron isn't just a matter of whether the company received help on its way down, but whether it (and other companies) got help when it looked like it was still on the way up. That part is bipartisan. The company paid no income tax in four of the past five years and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle helped defeat accounting reforms that might have brought Enron's misleading financial practices to light earlier.

Those sorts of benefits have continued to accrue to the Houston Goliathsince Bush took office. The administration has placed friendly figures in various regulatory agencies. The stimulus package the president implored the Senate to act on inlast week's State of the Union address would benefit Enron to the tune of $160 million to $254 million. And down in Florida,the state's pension board, one of whose three board members is Gov. Jeb Bush, was buying around 2.5 million shares of Enron stock after the SEC announced its investigation of Enron on Oct. 22, 2001. That fund is managed by Alliance Capital, whose vice chairman Roger Hertog is a major backer of the Republican Party and a conservative think tank.

The Bush administration is not responsible for Enron's downfall. But it has shared, at least until now, the belief system that sees regulation and oversight as things to be watered down, gotten around and, where possible, eliminated. That belief system, as thousands of out-of-work Houstonians know better than I, has consequences.

There is one thing I find more infuriating than conservatives being able to behave this way and still own the "values" debate. That is liberals letting them get away with it.

I know -- the country's at war, and the president's approval ratings are running consistently over 80 percent. I know, also, that the long tentacles of the Enron mess reach into bipartisan muck, and Democrats definitely need to do some tidying up in their own house. I understand all that.

But liberals have acquiesced in letting conservatives paint them as libidinous traitors and moral relativists for three decades, and have only occasionally, and tremulously, defended their values.Those values -- more central to the task of governing than the realm of personal mores -- have brought the nation the 40-hour work week, the G.I. Bill, civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, cleaner rivers, lower poverty rates and the first federal budget surplus in a generation (now gone), among many other benefits. I'll go out on a limb here: I daresay most Americans find these gains rather useful in their day-to-day lives. But I don't recall hearing Al Gore invokemuch of that history at critical moments in 2000.

Democratic operatives say their polls show they still have a "values" problem. They're trying to figure out how to deal with this. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, inthe Democratic response to the president's address last Tuesday, did use the V-word eight times, citing Democrats' support for progressive government programs and regulations. Bush used the word only twice, both times in reference to spreading American values throughout the world. If liberals want to win this argument, they'll turn "values" into an offensive weapon here at home, reminding the country of what their values have done for it, and what conservative values, in the case of the Enron affair, did to it.

Michael Tomasky is a political columnist for New York magazine.

Washington Post:

Back to News