Chatterbox isn't surprised that the first Bush official to get caught committing a financial impropriety would try to brazen it out. But Chatterbox is surprised to see Karl Rove get away with it. Rove, senior adviser and political Svengali to George W. Bush, was revealed last week by the Associated Press' Pete Yost to have met at the White House with the chief executive of Intel Corp., which wanted the Justice Department to sign off on a proposed merger, subsequently approved, between the Silicon Valley Group (of which Intel is the principal customer) and ASML. The sole fact that Intel met with a political hack like Rove over an antitrust matter should be enough to raise eyebrows. Add in the fact that at the time of the meeting, Rove owned more than $100,000 in Intel stock (he sold it two weeks ago), and you have what looks like a textbook example of governmental conflict of interest. But the story has raised scarcely a ripple. Why?
Well, for one thing, the press doesn't like to have to credit the AP. As every reporter knows, it's standard practice to use information gleaned from AP stories while providing little or no credit. Unlike just about every other kind of news organization, a wire service has to tolerate this because the plagiarizing entity is almost always a paying customer. If a reporter includes the phrase, "as reported by the AP" in a story, his news editor is likely to say something like, "Can't you do any better than that?" Officially, this is a command to find a primary source. Unofficially, it is understood to mean that the reporter may go back to his computer, drum his fingers on the desk three or four times, erase the words "as reported by the AP," and then resend the story to the news desk. The unspoken rationale is that the AP, which grinds out news articles at a furious pace, specializes in stories that any idiot could get if he had the time to consult the appropriate official sources. The same can't be said for the rare investigative AP story, which requires so much enterprise that the question, "Who dug up this stuff?" can't be swept under the carpet. Better not to follow the story at all. This logic probably seemed especially compelling when applied to a story about Rove, who is arguably the most interesting staffer in the otherwise dull Bush White House and one of the very few who will give reporters the time of day. On the morning after the Rove story broke, the editions of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times that Chatterbox read carried the AP story instead of stories of their own crediting the AP. This sent a clear signal to readers that the matter was of minor importance.
Another factor that muted the Rove story was the Democrats' decision to politicize it--not by expressing outrage and calling for hearings, but by ostentatiously proclaiming that expressing outrage and calling for hearings was just what those partisan Republicans would do, and we Democrats are better than that. When Juan Williams, on Fox News Sunday, asked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle whether the Senate was going to investigate the Rove affair, this is what Daschle said:
Democrats want to legislate, not investigate. Again, I will say as many times as I must say it that we're not going to engage in payback. There's plenty of temptation to do that, but we're not going to do that.
Obviously there is a very important responsibility for oversight onto issues, not personalities, not individuals. I'm not going to go after witch hunts. I think it's really important for us to legislate. Now, our function of oversight responsibility is one we respect, but we're not going to get into vendettas, we're not going to go after individuals and engage in some of the practices of some of our colleagues.
Daschle was probably feeling jittery about the Rove story because the previous day's Washington Post had carried a Page One story by Mike Allen focused not on the substance of the ethical questions surrounding Rove, but rather on the seemingly irresistible opportunity the Rove affair gave Democrats to bash Clinton-bashing Republicans. (The headline was "Ethics of Key Bush Officials Targeted.") Daschle, though hardly the nonpartisan saint he's often portrayed to be, doesn't have much of a taste for the jugular, and taking the high road was obviously smart politics.
Unfortunately, neither the journalistic nor the political imperatives shed much light on whether Rove's actions were proper. On the face of it, they were not. The sum of $100,000 is not a trivial amount of money to have invested in any given stock, even for a wealthy man like Rove. Nor is the $250,000 in General Electric stock that Rove held when, according to Yost's AP story, he met with executives from the nuclear power industry "to listen to their ideas on the Bush energy plan." (GE is heavily into nuclear power.) Nor was the $200,000 in Pfizer stock that Rove held when, according to Newsweek's Mike Isikoff, one of the very few reporters to have followed up on what Rove actually did, Rove was helping the Bush administration beat back a patient's rights bill that the drug companies opposed. Nor was the more than $100,000 in Enron stock that Rove held when he briefed the press about why the White House had rejected California Gov. Gray Davis' plea to impose price caps on electricity, which, among other things, would have been costly to Enron.
According to White House spokesman Dan Bartlett, in the Intel meeting Rove "made it very clear that he was not in the decision-making process and referred them to others in the administration who were." But George Scalise, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association and someone who actually attended the meeting, told Isikoff, "I don't recall that having been said." Isn't it worth finding out who's right? In a June 15 letter to Rove, Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee, asks Rove precisely what was discussed in that Intel meeting and whether Rove has been involved in other meetings that might have had an impact on his stock portfolio. Waxman's partisan relish in raising such questions is obvious; he's also sent a letter to Republican Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the committee, asking whether, "[C]onsistent with your practices during the Clinton administration ... you intend to schedule a hearing on the Rove/Intel matter." But it's worth remembering that participating in governmental decisions that affect your stock portfolio is not only likely to distort the outcome, but also, under most circumstances, against the law. Indeed, in 1997, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake paid a $5,000 fine merely for failing to sell off stocks in Exxon, Mobil, Duke Power, and Teco Energy, which might, theoretically, have affected his decisions on national security issues. In Lake's case, he hadn't even met with representatives of these companies! The controversy helped kill Lake's nomination for CIA director. Rove, by contrast, hasn't even been asked to apologize.