WASHINGTON, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush has so far proven masterful at toppling murderous tyrants and the terrorists they protect half way around the world. But he has suffered a devastating political wound at the hands of close friends based in his own home state.
For the Enron scandal now reverberating across the nation is big. It is very big indeed, much, much bigger than Monica Lewinsky. She only got a sitting president impeached -- unsuccessfully. Enron may change the political dynamics and climate of the entire United States for years, even for a generation to come.
It must first of all be said that if the seventh-wealthiest corporation in the United States is going to go bust, Bush and his spinmeisters have been handling it as well as anyone possibly could. And they have been aided by a still largely complacent media that has strayed far from its old muckraking traditions of previous generations, especially on its op-ed and business pages.
The White House has emphasized -- and the media so far has largely eaten it up -- that Bush and other top administration officials are "clean" and not implicated in the Enron collapse because they refused to intervene as it happened to try and improperly prevent it coming about. With amazing chutzpah, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has even hailed the collapse of the gigantic Houston-based energy conglomerate as part of the genius of capitalism.
But the collapse of Enron is no triumph for capitalism. It instead threatens to undermine and discredit much of the genuine progress that free-market deregulation has wrought in the U.S. economy over the past 20 years.
And the truly damaging threat for Bush and his colleagues, as they very well know, is not what they didn't do after Enron started to implode, but what they did in the years before that made that implosion inevitable.
For Enron did not spend its $6 million on campaign contributions to the Republican Party in vain. Nor was its funding to Clinton Democrats a waste of money either.
The endless regulatory loopholes that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives gave Enron in the years following 1994 are now a matter of record. So is the clear reluctance of the Clinton administration to start digging for dirt in Enron's practices. Now, it has also emerged that Enron did not even pay any tax in four of the past five years.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, alleged Wednesday that no less than 17 provisions in Vice President Dick Cheney's energy plan last year "are virtually identical to the positions Enron advocated."
And because the Enron executives knew that no one was watching or regulating them like they should have been, they were able to get away with fiscal murder.
Republicans who fastened on a petty, sordid story of self-indulgent but essentially harmless sex between two consenting adults to launch the first impeachment proceedings in more than 130 years against a sitting president are likely to find that Enron will prove a far more potent political weapon in the upcoming midterm elections than Monica did.
The Monica scandal backfired on the GOP. They lost significant ground in the House in the 1998 midterm congressional elections after their attempt to impeach Clinton over the Lewinsky affair failed. But the Monica scandal did not involve the wealth or well-being of anyone outside Monica herself and the first family.
By contrast, thousands of Enron employees have lost their life savings and have been impoverished for life while the people responsible for that are now wealthier than ever.
The cost of Enron's collapse is put at around $100 billion. Its bankruptcy is the largest in U.S. history. It comes at the very time when energy prices had slowly started to rise again and when the White House was announcing its belief that economic recovery had started following the loss of a million jobs in the U.S. economy last year.
If recovery does indeed come, the president and his congressional Republican allies will still be badly embarrassed by the scandal. But if no smoking gun emerges tying the president -- a twice-elected governor of Texas and prime beneficiary of Enron support in his election campaigns-- the issue should not prove central to Bush's re-election prospects in 2004.
But if the U.S. economy should not rally in the months ahead but continue its now nearly two-year inexorable slide into serious recession, and perhaps even worse, then Enron will cast ever-longer, ever more dire, shadows over the White House and the man who occupies it.
For the greatest danger the president faces is that Enron may become emblematic of a whole philosophy of government and doing business that has dominated the nation for the past two decades and that Bush himself exemplifies.
Bush's basic personal and political credo -- and that of all the leading House Republicans as well -- is that government regulation is inherently bad and the freer the market, the more wealth and growth it will create.
But Enron's executives abused that philosophy and the freedoms it generated. They used it not to create wealth, but to pillage it. Instead of generating widespread prosperity among ordinary people, they generated widespread ruin and despair among those who most trusted them.
The Enron story is rich in irony and chickens coming home to roost. It looks sure to prove a classic study in business and political nemesis, the Greek concept of avenging, angry, appropriate fate.