By Richard S. Dunham Ever since he first ran for governor of Texas in 1994, George W. Bush has lectured his fellow baby boomers about the moral relativism that he sees at the core of the nation's ethical breakdown. "A culture that once delineated right from wrong -- and good from bad -- has shifted to a culture that flouts virtue and revels in irresponsibility," he told the 1996 Republican National Convention. "It's a culture that says, 'If it feels good, do it,' and be willing to blame somebody else for society's ills." During the 2000 campaign, Bush lashed out at his own '60s Generation and called for "a period of personal responsibility...that says we're responsible for our decisions."
Bush's impassioned call to higher ethical standards never failed to elicit a roaring response from Republican loyalists who were sick and tired of the "feel-good" personal life of Bill Clinton. To a nation bewildered by the former President's defense against perjury ("It depends on what the definition of 'is' is"), Bush's unambiguous call for personal responsibility and moral absolutism stood in stark contrast to the laissez-faire philosophy of his fellow baby boomer.
Now, Bush's words are being thrown back in his face by some of Clinton's best buddies. Responding to the President's refusal to release documents related to his own financial dealings as a Texas entrepreneur a decade ago, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe argues: "It's time this CEO, President Bush, took responsibility for his actions as a private businessman and as President of the United States. The reality is that Bush and his Administration have given the green light to unscrupulous CEOs by helping to foster a business environment that says 'if it feels good, do it,' and, when confronted with the crisis, they offer toothless reforms."
WHERE THE LINE IS DRAWN. McAuliffe's prose may not be quite as polished as Bush's, and polls show that more Americans blame Clinton for the moral decay in Corporate America than finger Bush. But McAuliffe still makes a point worth pondering.
Perhaps Bush and Clinton, as baby boomers, have more in common when it comes to moral relativism than Bush wants to acknowledge. The big difference was where they chose to draw the line. Clinton blurred the lines from the bedroom to the courtroom. Bush, after his period of rebellion and partying, became a moral absolutist on matters of personal conduct. But it turns out that his take-personal-responsibility credo may have been a bit more flexible when it comes to personal financial issues.
Take Bush's response to the question of whether he, as a board member of a Dallas-area energy company called Harken Energy, was late in filing some paperwork known as a "Form 4" with the Securities & Exchange Commission. As BusinessWeek's Paula Dwyer reported in the July 22 issue ("The Ghosts That Won't Go Away"), Bush was tardy four times in filing the form, required when a corporate insider sells company stock. Has he taken responsibility yet? Nope.
FLUMMOXED. The simple answer for Bush would have been this: "Yep, I goofed. I forgot to file those forms on time, but I wasn't hiding anything improper. I filed a Form 144 disclosing my intention to sell the stock. The sales were perfectly legal, but I have no excuse for being eight months late on one Form 4. And neither do any other business executives who might have motives more sinister than my own. End of story."
But what has his answer been? During previous campaigns, Bush and/or his spokespeople have blamed the SEC for a paperwork mixup. When the issue flared up this past month, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said it was the fault of Harken's lawyers. And the President himself seemed flummoxed at a June 8 press conference. "As to why the Form 4 was late, I still haven't figured it out completely," he told reporters. He called the Form 144 "the important document."
When it comes to taking responsibility, Bush also dropped the ball by not disclosing during the press conference or his big Wall Street speech the next day that he, as a Harken director, had received two low-interest loans to buy stock from the company.
DO AS I SAY. These insider transactions weren't improper. And Bush paid them back fully, in a timely manner. Trouble is, the President on June 9 called for an end to the same kind of loans he received. "Those who sit on corporate boards have responsibilities," the President told his Wall Street audience. "I challenge compensation committees to put an end to all company loans to corporate officers." I'd bet that Bush's speechwriters wish they had known about their boss's loans before they included that line in the nationally televised address.
But the longest hike from the world of moral absolutism came when Bush was asked about Harken accounting practices that the SEC deemed improper, prompting the company to restate earnings. "All I can tell you is, is that in the corporate world, sometimes things aren't exactly black and white when it comes to accounting procedures," he said. Sort of depends what the definition of "proper" is.
The President seems genuinely baffled why this old story has roared back to life more than a decade after the events in question. It's sort of like Clinton's astonishment that his old Whitewater investments could become front-page news across the country. "I mean, this is recycled stuff," Bush intoned on July 8, to laughter from the White House press corps.
"BLIND SPOT." One longtime Bush watcher, University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan, sees the President's past actions -- and current reaction -- as consequences of his growing up in an environment of wealth and corporate connections. "There's a certain blind spot in [the family's] inability to perceive the moral implications of their privileged upbringing," Buchanan says. When it comes to business issues, the President shows "a willingness to tolerate moral fuzziness that he doesn't tolerate in these other areas."
Buchanan points to Bush's comment about accounting rules not being "black and white." Of course, that's what many of the accused corporate criminals have been saying. "For a person who prides himself on moral clarity, [Bush has] a kind of double standard he might not even be aware of," Buchanan argues.
Nobody has accused the President of doing anything wrong, other than filing those forms late. (And really, that's hardly a crime.) But it's interesting to note that so many of the corporate executives who are now accused of wrongdoing come from the same generation as Bush and Clinton. Look at WorldCom, at Enron, at many of the others: You see faces from the '60s, all grown up and still pushing the limits of the rules while denying responsibility.
"DIFFERENT RULES." Even within the Bush Administration, a generational difference is apparent when it comes to the questions of corporate crime. "Maybe I'm naïve," says 66-year-old Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, a former Alcoa CEO and longtime business exec. "Apparently, a fair number of people out there played by a different set of rules."
O'Neill was at a loss to explain Bush's failure to file the proper forms on time. "Did I ever [miss] a timely filing of a Form 4? No," he told a breakfast meeting with reporters on June 10. "But you know, it does happen.... Even in some very good companies, there are occasional lapses."
Yes, even honest businessmen like Bush have occasional lapses. The surprise is that the President, the champion of personal responsibility, seems so reluctant to say just that. Maybe it's a boomer thing. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online