How to suck the president's blood.

How to suck the president's blood.

How to suck the president's blood.

Politics and policy.
Aug. 1 2002 6:19 PM

Tom Daschle, Mosquito

How to suck the president's blood.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

At a press conference Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was asked about reports that the Harken Energy Corp. had set up a subsidiary in the Cayman Islands, possibly to avoid taxes, while George W. Bush was a consultant to the company and served on its board. "Obviously, there are a lot of questions to be asked before we can come to any conclusions about what happened," Daschle replied. "It is why we think that the administration needs to lay the record straight, needs to allow the SEC to open up its records."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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This isn't the first time Daschle has put on his earnest TV face and counseled Bush to open his heart and his filing cabinets. A month ago, when reporters were nipping at Bush's heels over whether he had sold Harken stock on inside information, Daschle confided to CBS interviewer Gloria Borger, "I think the president would do well to ask the SEC to release the file, release it all, let everybody see just what is there. … The best way to resolve all those issues is just allow the SEC to release the file. I think that would clarify the matter a good deal."

A month or so before that, the big story was whether Bush had failed to act on prior information about the Sept. 11 plot. First Daschle called for an investigation of what the president knew and when he knew it. Then, when it turned out that Bush hadn't known much, Daschle called for an investigation of what the president didn't know and why he didn't know it. "We're not making any accusations against the president, but we know we've got to do a better job, and that's all we're suggesting," Daschle explained on Meet the Press. "Let's get the facts. Let's make sure we have the information, and let's do a better job the next time. That isn't Republican. That isn't Democratic. That is American."

This is how Daschle responds to any whiff of scandal in the Bush administration. He doesn't raise his voice. He doesn't level explicit charges. He just gives the camera that serious, troubled, civic-responsibility look and urges the president to let it all hang out.

Why does Daschle do this? For the same reason a mosquito injects its saliva while biting you. As the National Park Service explains, "After piercing the skin, the mosquito pumps its own saliva down through a very fine tube into the puncture hole. This causes the itching that commonly follows a 'bite.' Mosquito saliva acts as an anticoagulant (blood thinner) to prevent the blood from clotting before the mosquito can suck it up."

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Daschle's technique is similar. Politically speaking, he wants to suck Bush's blood. He's bitten Bush several times, but each time, the wound has clotted up. Enron? No records of a rescue mission for Kenny Boy. 9/11 warnings? No telltale memo. Harken insider trading? No smoking gun. That's what happens to most would-be scandals. They never blow open. For want of evidence, for want of leads, the story dries up. The blood stops flowing from the wound. The press gets bored or demoralized and moves on.

That's where the mosquito's saliva comes in. The initial puncture wound is never enough. To inflict real damage, you have to keep the blood flowing. You need more documents and testimony. You need more reporters digging through records and pressing for explanations. More questions lead to more answers; more answers lead to more questions. More investigators lead to more lines of inquiry; more lines of inquiry lead to more investigators. Think back to Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Whitewater. The scandal starts small, grows, changes course, and grows again. It ends up not just bigger but very different from what you thought it would be. If you're the mosquito, you don't know how it will turn out. Your job is just to get the blood flowing.

When Daschle asks Bush to release his SEC file and challenges the press to keep digging, he isn't trying to "clarify" or "resolve" the questions at hand, as he pretends. He's trying to make those questions larger, more complicated, and more suspicious. If the SEC records on Bush's stock sale prove innocuous, maybe the records on Harken's offshore subsidiary will turn up something incriminating. Like Harken, Daschle knows most of the holes he drills will be dry. He doesn't care which wound the blood comes out of, as long as it flows.

So far, Bush has sealed up every wound. He has spurned Daschle's demands for SEC records and for a blue-ribbon 9/11 commission, and he has gotten away with it. Idealists like to say that stonewalling never works, that it's the cover-up, not the crime, that always brings you down. Hogwash. The only reason all cover-ups appear to fail is that you never hear about the ones that succeed. If there's something damning in Bush's SEC file or in some memo a 9/11 commission might have unearthed, you don't know about it. And you won't, unless somebody lubricates those wounds.

Half the time, that somebody won't be Daschle. Several questions he got Wednesday were about the Senate Ethics Committee's investigation of Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J. That's D as in Democrat. "Clearly the Ethics Committee spoke and it spoke clearly," Daschle told his inquisitors conclusively. "But now I think the time has come for us to move on." Even a mosquito wants some wounds to heal.