I had this B-School pal who went on to Morgan Stanley and then Lehman Brothers and then came this close to going to jail for insider trading. He pleaded guilty in 1980, but managed to avoid serving time. It was quite a celebrated case. (On the eve of the indictment, he married the daughter of the then chairman of Twentieth Century Fox.)

Now comes news, two decades later, that he is one of 11 defendants in a new insider trading case, this one involving the 1995 takeover of U.S. Shoe. (According to the SEC, it was my old pal’s prior experience with insider-trading investigations that helped him fend this off so long.)

If insider trading is bad — and it is — then why does one guy risk going to jail and another risk becoming President?

Not to say that George W. Bush was ever charged with, let alone convicted of, insider trading. He was not. But here’s what U.S News & World Report, the most conservative of the three national newsweeklies, had to say (March 16, 1992):

“Bush sold [his entire] $828,560 worth of Harken stock just one week before the company posted unusually poor quarterly earnings and Harken stock plunged sharply. Shares lost more than 60% of their value over 6 months. When Bush sold his shares, he was a member of a company committee studying the effect of Harken’s restructuring, a move to appease anxious creditors. According to documents on file with the Securities and Exchange Commission, his position on the Harken committee gave Bush detailed knowledge of the company’s deteriorating financial condition. The SEC received word of Bush’s trade eight month’s late. Bush has said he filed the notice but that it was lost. “

An SEC probe ended without charges being filed.

Now, come on. A coincidence that an insider enmeshed in all this stuff, and on the three-man audit committee, would sell out a week before the bad news hit?

I’m not suggesting that anyone in the SEC might have gone easy on the President’s son . . . but it’s conceivable, no?

Before running for Governor, Bush obtained a letter from the SEC saying that “the investigation has been terminated as to the conduct of Mr. Bush, and that, at this time, no enforcement action is contemplated with respect to him.” According to the Washington Post (July 30, 1999), “Bush took that as vindication. ‘The SEC fully investigated the stock deal,’ he said in October 1994. ‘I was exonerated.’ . . . Hiler, however, was more cautious. His statement said it ‘must in no way be construed as indicating that the party has been exonerated . . . ‘”

Exonerated . . . not exonerated — whatever.

The fact is, I think we should leave all this alone. Bush may not have had a perfect decade or two after college — there may be people serving long prison terms in Texas right now for doing drugs in their youth that the Governor declines to say whether he did when he was young and irresponsible. And perhaps he did engage in blatant insider trading, as the facts would seem to suggest. But I don’t think we should launch $40 million taxpayer-financed multi-year investigations.

The country has truly had enough of the politics of personal destruction.

So let’s leave this stuff alone . . . but on BOTH sides, not just Bush’s.

Was Bush lying when he claimed to have not known about Harken’s impending bad news? I truly don’t know. I like to think not.

I do know it’s inconceivable that Al Gore was “lying” when he said he co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.

(He should have said “strongly supported,” and that he had “co-sponsored earlier campaign finance reform legislation.” But is that a lie? Gore’s main point: he favors broad campaign finance reform. Which is true. And that the Republicans don’t. Which is one of the many reasons they are trying so hard to tear down his credibility, so he can’t win the election and fight for it.)

Several of you pointed me to Bill Bennett’s op-ed in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal in which he actually — repeatedly and directly — called the Vice President a liar. He cited lots of supposed examples to prove his point — like the “co-sponsored” one above. But he omitted three of the most famous: “inventing the Internet,” Love Canal, and Love Story. Why?

My guess is that Bennett — who fancies himself a great judge of virtue — grudgingly recognizes that these juicy, funny, popular charges, which have pulled so well in Republican direct mail, are simply untrue. (By Bennett’s standard, one might even call them lies.) But if that’s the reason he omits them from his op-ed, then what does this say about George W. Bush? Bush has used the Internet line over and over, almost surely knowing that Gore deserves serious praise for his role with the Internet, not ridicule. Bush has allowed his campaign to use the Internet and Love Canal and Love Story as cornerstones in their effort to suggest that — just as Jerry Ford was a klutz (he wasn’t) and Dan Quayle was an idiot (he isn’t) — Al Gore is a untrustworthy. Well, I don’t buy it, and neither should you.

I would not argue that Ford was the most sure-footed man ever to hold office, although he was apparently a hell of a college football player. And you’ll never find me arguing that Dan Quayle is a genius — or that Al Gore is a man who never gets a fact wrong, embellishes a story, or fudges when he’s put on the defensive. But I’d argue that Quayle is certainly as bright as Governor Bush, and that Vice President Gore is certainly as honest as Governor Bush. It’s just that their honesty takes different forms.

Gore is honest — indeed, impassioned — on the big, substantive stuff: He strongly favors campaign finance reform. He wants to avoid squandering a large chunk of the hoped-for surplus on a big tax cut for the top 1%. He wants your parents and grandparents to be able to get the prescription drugs they need and still be able to eat. He wants smaller class sizes. He wants to see America ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He wants to raise the minimum wage. He wants to draw on the talents of all Americans, including openly gay and lesbian Americans. He wants women to retain the right to choose. And so on.

Around the edges, he is sometimes too quick to assert something that, on reflection, is misstated, like saying “co-sponsor” instead of “support” — or saying he flew with James Lee Witt to inspect the Texas floods.

Geez, what a whopper that was! According to Margaret Carlson in last week’s Time, the VP toured the floods with FEMA’s regional director, not James Lee Witt himself . . . although he had gone on 17 other trips with Witt to disaster areas. Bill Bennett is outraged! How can we trust a man who mixed up which disaster trip was with which FEMA official? It wasn’t Witt at all on that trip! It was a different FEMA guy!

Some of the “gotchas” around which the Bush folks have tried to undermine Gore’s credibility are simply false, like the three famous ones Bennett omitted. Some are technically true but trivial, like the co-sponsor thing. The Buddhist temple? Read the recent extensive New Yorker story. You will find in it no reason to withhold your vote from Gore.

Bush, by contrast, never exaggerates or misspeaks or gets defensive on the small stuff. Well, he does, of course — we all do — but with him the presumption is it’s just innocent human error. (So what if he says we have to step up exploration in Mexico to decrease our dependence on foreign oil? Or if he says “this man has outspent me” when it’s simply untrue.)

What matters in this election are basically two things:

  • First, competence. (And, please: does anyone think Bush is the more competent of the two? Sure, he’ll turn to his running mate and to his cabinet secretaries to tell him what to do — but what if they disagree? Then who decides? In a dangerous world, this is not a trivial question.)
  • Second, issues. And that is where I believe the Vice President is being forthright and the Governor gets into trouble.

Gore is attempting to alert the voters to the fact that Bush’s tax plan is too large (Alan Greenspan has agreed with that) and too heavily weighted toward the wealthy (John McCain has agreed with that). These charges are true and they are important, and Bush just brushes them off as “fuzzy math.” That’s dishonest. And in a very fundamental, substantive way.

The money Bush would direct toward eliminating the estate tax for the top 2%, and for slashing their income tax — nice though these cuts would be — would divert hundreds of billions of dollars from things that most voters would agree are more urgent.

Bush does everything he can not to be honest about this. He could say, “Hell, yes, 30% of my tax cuts would go to people who make more than $1 million a year. But those people work hard. And I believe life has been too tough on them these last 8 years. I want to do something for these people.” He could say, “Yes, most of my tax cut would go to the people at the top, but they pay the most taxes, so why not? You’ll still get something, too.”

He could say, “It’s true Gore’s budget calls for twice the increase in spending on military procurement that mine does. But somehow I’ll still do it better.” Instead, he makes it sound as if, even after his big tax cut, he’ll be able to devote more resources to the military than Gore. How?

C’mon, guys. The only fuzzy math here — like the old voodoo economics that cut taxes for the rich and swelled our National Debt by $4 trillion — is trying to make people think that lowering Steve Forbes’s taxes by millions doesn’t wind up taking those millions from someplace else. Like defense or health care for kids or prescription drugs for seniors.

Nor is it only economics where he’s being less than forthright. From the exchange in last week’s debate, you’d never know that Bush promised religious conservatives he wouldn’t knowingly hire gays or lesbians (the previous Bush administration didn’t either). Or that he supports the Texas law under which his running mate’s daughter could be imprisoned for loving her chosen partner in the privacy of their own bedroom. Or that in the wake of the James Byrd, Jr., dragging-to-death, he was prepared to sign a Texas hate crimes statute — but only so long as it didn’t cover gays or lesbians.

My bottom line is that both men are decent folks who love their families and their country. But that Gore is every bit as honorable and principled as his opponent. Perhaps, when you consider the seriousness with which he has devoted his life to public service, and the seriousness with which he has thought through economic, environmental and foreign policy issues, he is even more so.

Perhaps his having the guts to enlist in the Army, with no assurance he would not see combat — enlisted men do not choose their own assignments — should count for something more than ridicule from the guy who stayed home to defend Texas. (Personally, I would not have had the courage to enlist or to fly a fighter plane — I had a high draft number — so my hat is off to both of them.)

So enough with the character assassination. And who cares how good or bad the VP’s make-up is tonight? The world faces serious challenges in the years ahead.

Do you want at the helm, as we chart our course into the future, the guy who really did take the lead in Congress championing what would become the Internet? Or do you want the guy who deliberately twists this achievement into a cheap laugh?

Do you want Trent Lott un-vetoed? Jesse Helms un-vetoed? A dramatically more conservative Supreme Court over the next 25 years? If so, Bush is your man. But, please: not because he’s of higher moral character. He is not. And neither is Bill Bennett.


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