WASHINGTON -- About three weeks ago, rookie White House aide Adam Levine went to senior Bush adviser Karl Rove with a strange story. John Weaver, longtime adviser to Sen. John McCain, had encountered him in a Washington bar, said Levine, and told him Rove surreptitiously placed conservative political activist Ralph Reed on the Enron payroll in 1997 to mask his support for George W. Bush's presidential campaign.
According to Levine, Weaver thought of Levine as a McCain-friendly, Democratic producer for MSNBC's "Hardball" program, which he had just left. Two weeks after this encounter the same story that Levine had passed on to Rove was emblazoned in The New York Times, written by their top political reporter. The assumption at the White House: Weaver was the source. "That is absolutely, categorically untrue," Weaver told me. He also definitively denied the conversation reported to Rove by Levine.
Somebody is not telling the truth, and the determination is significant. This little episode is important for two reasons. First, the Times report of Jan. 24, whistling through Washington's whisper tunnel, is cited by President Bush's critics as proof of his corrupt alliance with scandal-scarred Enron. Second, the idea fostered by the newspaper's story that Reed was given a phony placeholder's job on the giant energy firm's payroll to hide his Bush connection is false.
In truth, there was no attempt to disguise Rove's relationship with Reed, former president of the Christian Coalition and now Republican state chairman of Georgia. Reed's Atlanta-based political consulting firm fulfilled a multi-million dollar contract with the Bush campaign and was indispensable in getting out the conservative vote. Reed and Rove combined to help deliver the crucial South Carolina primary for Bush, and diehard McCain backers such as Weaver are still bitter over their rough tactics.
As for the implication that Reed was drawing $10,000 to $20,000 a month in a hidden, no-show job, The Philadelphia Inquirer on Nov. 16, 1997, reported Enron had hired Reed for a specific purpose. Using Pat Robertson's former right-hand man "as a consultant on grass-roots organizing" in behalf of then Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge's electricity deregulation initiative "stirred talks about the ties to conservative politicians," the Inquirer said.
If the impression given by the Times Jan. 24 is false, that raises the question of who would convey it to political reporter Richard L. Berke. He identified "close associates of Mr. Rove" and "a friend of Mr. Bush" as supplying the information, but how "close" and "friendly" seems dubious. As a reputable journalist, Berke would never describe Weaver that way. The feud between Weaver and Rove, dating from competition as campaign consultants in Texas, is alive and well.
Nevertheless, if Weaver was spreading the Reed-Enron story around Washington, the barroom conversation with the young White House aide takes on importance. To corroborate his denial, Weaver urged me to contact two other persons at the bar: NBC news correspondent Campbell Brown and Juleanna Glover-Weiss, Vice President Dick Cheney's former press secretary.
Neither, each told me, heard Weaver say what Levine reported when they were there. But, Levine told me, the women had left the room temporarily, when Weaver made his charges. "It was mano-a-mano," he added.
Weaver's continued hostility toward the Bush administration cannot be disputed. "If this administration has a tin ear for anything," he recently told Knight-Ridder news service, "it's the linkage between money and politics, and it's own ties to the corporate elite."
A clear McCain connection to The New York Times article is Berke quoting by name Trevor Potter, identified as a Republican and former Federal Election Commission chairman. Oddly, Berke does not mention that Potter was a lawyer for McCain's presidential campaign. In the Times account, Potter suggests that Enron putting Reed on its payroll "illustrates the close relations between the Bush political world and Enron."
The disgrace of Enron offers a clear opportunity by critics to try shooting down a high-flying George W. Bush. But the collusion between the president's political operation and the bankrupt company's leaders should not be quickly accepted, even when implied in the nation's most prestigious journals.