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The Bully Pulpit Needs a Preacher

July 22, 2002|DON SIPPLE

Like clockwork, the summer scandal season is upon us. Last year it was the Chandra Levy-Gary Condit matter. This year it's corporate fraud, abuse and excess of historical proportions. Except this time, it's wreaking havoc in the stock market and now in our politics.

President Bush has tried to get ahead of the current scandal by jawboning the corporate community and Wall Street crowd. His efforts have been met with mixed results because, one, he is fighting a stereotype of the GOP as the "party of big business" and, two, because of the revelations about his allegedly hypocritical behavior when he was a director of Harken Energy Corp. a decade ago.

Now members of Congress have gotten into the act, working to deploy new laws and regulations to prevent corporate abuses, even though it was they who helped foster the current situation with the laws they passed with zeal in 1995.

Partisan finger-pointing seems to rule the day. No surprise.

What is strikingly absent from the current scandal is any contrition or apologies from the likes of Enron, Global Crossing, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, etc. Nor has there been much condemnation coming from credible leaders of the business community.

In the absence of outrage and anger from business leaders that echo the sentiments of disenchanted investors, one must conclude that it isn't, as the president said, just a few bad apples--it's the barrel. Yet the current crisis of confidence in the business community should not be viewed in a vacuum. It is but the latest in a series of assaults on institutions whose health and public confidence are critical to the nation's well-being.

Lest we forget, the revelations this spring regarding the intelligence failures of the FBI, the CIA and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the sins and orchestrated cover-up by the Catholic Church and the steroids controversy in professional baseball all combine to seriously undermine public confidence.

At best, these institutions have an ethics problem. At worst, we are in the throes of a moral crisis. Thus the White House and Washington would be well advised to see the current crisis of confidence in a broader context.

Therein lies an opportunity.

With his popularity strong, President Bush is in a unique position. After all, he owes his election in large part to Bill Clinton. In our amazing and enduring self-correcting democracy, George W. Bush was the "repenter" who replaced the "sinner." Thus, Bush's elevation to the presidency had moral undertones. So who better to lead us out of our ethical-moral quagmire?

Here is how:

* Washington cannot restore confidence in the business community and financial institutions that form the foundation for our economic system. Only corporate America itself can fix that. The president should be the catalyst for credible business leaders across the country to convene a summit with the aim of self-policing. If stock options need to be expensed to a company's bottom line, so be it. The same captains of industry who advocate less government in their affairs must take the responsibility to rebuild confidence; structural integrity needs to be its cornerstone.

* The homeland security plan is more fig leaf than serious enterprise and is falling into a bureaucratic abyss. Bush should shake up the bungling FBI, CIA and INS. The president should not carry the sins of the federal bureaucracy on his shoulders, regardless of how loyal he is. Fire a couple of chiefs to restore public confidence.

* Go to Notre Dame and give the definitive speech on the ethical-moral crisis facing the nation. Here Bush can applaud the pope and the cardinals for coming forward to deal with the problems in their priesthood. Perhaps the business community will take note how mea culpas work.

* George W. Bush once ran a major league baseball team. His credentials to comment on the excesses and ethics of professional sports are solid. In an era in which radio announcers broadcast the "athlete arrest of the day," the president can find the opportunity to speak about role models and the importance of maintaining professionalism.

The American people will not lose confidence in themselves even as they lose confidence in their institutions, crumbling under the weight of arrogance and excess. Equally important is that Americans are forgiving as long as they are dealt with in a sincere and honest fashion.

The current crises of confidence in the nation's institutions require the president to take command.

He has the moral authority, the political capital, the skills to do it. In fact, he can probably put his heart into it, something Americans don't often see from their leader.

*

Don Sipple is a GOP analyst and political strategist.

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