Can Jeff Gerth Save the White House?

Drivel and Squawk: A Weekly Review of the 4th Estate

by Alexander Cockburn

July 19, 2002

 

 

The right is whining. Carl Limbacher and his crew complain on the popular NewsMax site that in the two weeks since the Harken story went critical, "the prestige press" (Limbacher's odd phrase, which presumably means he's excluding The National Enquirer) has given the affair fifty times more coverage than it gave the Whitewater deal after the New York Times broke that story on March 8, 1992.

 

Limbacher moans that Whitewater showed up only 14 times in the wake of the Times story, while from June 28 to July 12 of this year there have been over 700 stories on the Harken sale.

 

C'mon, Carl. The reason Whitewater got off to a slow start was because for months no one could figure out what the New York Times's Jeff Gerth was writing about. Reading any Gerth story is like bicycling through wet sand, but in the case of Whitewater he surpassed himself. As readers sank up to their armpits in the sludge of Gerth-prose, interest in Whitewater for that electoral year flickered and died. Gerth saved Clinton's ass. Ultimately Whitewater did make it into the headlines, but in truth it always lacked sex appeal. There just wasn't that much meat in the stew. Not like Hillary's commodity trades.

 

Just like those trades, Harken is really easy to understand. Guy (the future-and-hopefully-once President) makes a bundle selling stock in his company which is going belly up, acting on insider knowledge of the books, and also culled because his dad was in the Oval Office. Guy forgets to tell the SEC.

 

Same way with Cheney. No need to put in those daunting phrases like "complex transactions" The simple numbers have serious panache. Here's one precis of the situation that's going the rounds.

 

"Cheney's 2000 income from Halliburton: $36,086,635.

 

Increase in government contracts while Cheney led Halliburton: 91%

 

Minimum size of "accounting irregularity" that occurred while Cheney was CEO: $100,000,000.

 

Number of the seven official US "State Sponsors of Terror" that Halliburton contracted with: 2 out of 7.

 

Pages of energy plan documents Cheney refused to give congressional investigators: 13,500.

 

Amount energy companies gave the Bush/Cheney presidential campaign: $1,800,000."

 

But if anyone can save Bush and Cheney it will be Gerth. Last week he and another Times scrivener called Richard Stevenson managed the truly amazing feat of making the Harken story complicated and boring.

 

Here was the first paragraph: "President Bush received two low-interest loans to buy stock from an oil company where he served as a board member in the late 1980's. He then benefited from the company's relaxation of the terms of one loan in 1989 as he was engaged in the most important business deal of his career."

 

Only 52 words and already the air is whistling out of the tire. On and on the story trundled, until it approached the famous SEC non-probe. You'll recall from the 700-plus stories lamented by Limbacher that Bush Jr's prolonged failure to report to the SEC the sale that netted him $840,000 was viewed with indulgence by that agency, whose boss had been appointed by President G. Bush, and whose counsel had worked for Bush Jr. negotiating the purchase of the Texas Rangers. It's hard to bore people with material like that, as Paul Krugman is discovering each week. Here's how Gerth and Stevenson approached this bit of the saga:

 

"The June 1990 Harken stock sale led to an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission during his father's administration of whether Mr. Bush had knowingly sold the stock in advance of worse-than-expected financial results that temporarily drove down Harken's share price.

 

"The S.E.C. took no action against Mr. Bush."

 

Harken is not a new story. Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity dealt with it long ago in hisbook The Buying of the President 2000. Even back then Lewis speculated that the mystery institutional buyer of Bush's stock might have been Harvard Management -- the overseer of the school's multi-billion dollar endowment. Lewis wrote that "A month after Bush came on board, Harvard Management agreed to invest at least $20 million in Harken. It would come to own some ten million shares of Harken stock, making it one of the company's largest investors. The Bush name may have helped seal the deal. Harvard's Harken investments in oil and gas would eventually generate nearly $200 million in losses for the endowment."

 

The broker involved, Ralph Smith of Sutro & Company, has refused to name the buyer of Bush shares, though he has said it was an institutional investor. Lewis reported that "at the bottom of a spreadsheet Smith used to record his calls to Bush was the name of Michael Eisenson, along with the telephone number of Harvard Management."

 

In other words Harvard Management lost staggering amounts in a bum investment that saved the ass of the president's son.

 

The broker involved, Ralph Smith of Sutro & Company, has refused to name the buyer of Bush shares, though he has said it was an institutional investor. Lewis reported that "at the bottom of a spreadsheet Smith used to record his calls to Bush was the name of Michael Eisenson, along with the telephone number of Harvard Management."

 

None of this alluring stuff holds appeal for Gerth and his colleague, who simply wrote "In the case of the sale of his Harken stock, Mr. Bush benefited from the action of an investor who remains unknown even today."

 

A few days later Gerth and Don van Natta Jr. were at it again, this time paralyzing Times readers with a narcotic narrative about Halliburton. The lead was promising.

 

"The Halliburton Company, the Dallas oil services company bedeviled lately by an array of accounting and business issues, is benefiting very directly from the United States efforts to combat terrorism.

 

"From building cells for detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to feeding American troops in Uzbekistan, the Pentagon is increasingly relying on a unit of Halliburton called KBR, sometimes referred to as Kellogg Brown & Root."

 

Reading the story was a bit like walking around some familiar room in the dark, tripping over and then gradually recognizing bits of furniture. Through the choking fog of Gerth-prose one could dimly descry the familiar landscape of Pentagon corruption, with cost-plus bids, non-competitive contract awards, manic over-billing and so forth. Senator Charles Grassley's staff will be only too glad to send you thousands of pages of testimony on such endemic corruption and fraud, a goodly part of which stemmed from Al Gore's efforts to reinvent government by having recourse to the discipline and efficiency (heh heh) of the private sector.

 

Another reason for the sense of familiarity was that the story was broken, and furthermore told in an exciting and accessible way several months ago by Jordan Green of the Institute for Southern Studies, published in Facing South, the institute's internet newsletter, with a shorter version in the Institute's Southern Exposure magazine. Contrast Gerth-tedium with Green's pioneering and far richer treatment, under the title "To the Victors Go the Markets: Halliburton's Claim On Central Asia".

 

"Last December, the US Department of Defense made a no-cap, cost-plus-award contract to Halliburton KBR's Government Operations division. The Dallas-based company is contracted to build forward operating bases to support troop deployments for the next nine years wherever the President chooses to take the anti-terrorism war The Pentagon posts all contract announcements exceeding $5 million on its Website, but in Halliburton's case declined to disclose the estimated value of the award. A spokesperson for Halliburton gave $2.5 billion as the amount the company earned from base support services in the 1990s, acknowledging that the contract value could exceed that number assuming that the scope of US military actions widens in the next decade The first increment of Halliburton's award is being subcontracted to Oshkosh Truck Corporation in Wisconsin and King Trailers in Market Harborough, England. Because of Prime Minister Tony Blair's invaluable service of persuading Britain's reluctant public to go along with the American campaign and in providing British peacekeepers to secure Afghanistan, America's junior partner has been rewarded with a boost to its manufacturing base.

 

"But the major rewards are reserved for the Texas oil oligarchy. Halliburton Company has close connections with the Bush family. Aside from Cheney, there is Lawrence Eagleburger, a Halliburton director and former deputy secretary of defense under Bush Sr. during the Gulf War. In its earlier incarnation as Brown & Root Services, the company sponsored Texan and future president Lyndon B. Johnson's stolen election to the US Senate in 1948, building the state's spectacular political-industrial muscle."

 

That's how to write a story. But then both Green and the executive director of the Institute, Chris Kromm, are both former interns of mine. (But surely, you'll be asking, Gerth and his associate reminded Times readers the colorful saga of Brown & Root. No they didn't.)

 

But even the Gerth treatment may not save Cheney, who's gone to ground again, just as he did after 9/11, though this time the enemy will take the form of a subpoena-server rather than the shock troops of Al Qaeda. What then? How can Bush freshen up the White House's battered image and his own terrible performance. Each time he opens his mouth the markets take a dive and the dollar slumps against the Euro. I thank Almighty God on a daily basis that my daughter elected to get married in Geneva last year, when my dollars were able confront the bill for the wedding feast in relatively good heart, with a side trip to Paris thrown in.

 

When Cheney totters into hat good night, may we not expect to hear the call for a hero of NYC's darkest hour, the former mayor, Mr. Rudy Giuliani, a man whose marital upheavals have now been settled with a handsome pay off to the injured wife and the charges of abominable cruelties sealed forever. Vice president Giuliani. How does that sound?

 

Terrifying? Of course, because Giuliani's anti-civil libertarian instincts would mesh in perfectly with the totalitarian propensities of the Bush regime. But as the public temper sharpens against the corporate culture that saw Cheney haul off $36 million from Halliburton in 2000, Giuliani's famous prosecutorial forays against Wall St figures in the 1980s offer a resume in sync with the new mood.

 

Alexander Cockburn is the author The Golden Age is In Us (Verso, 1995) and 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (Verso, 2000) coauthored by Jeffrey St. Clair. Cockburn and St. Clair are the editors of Counterpunch, the nationís best political newsletter, where this article first appeared.

 

 

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